Client-centred or person-centred counselling was developed by the great mind of American psychologist Carl Rogers (1902-1987). What I personally like the most about this approach is that it is the client who is the expert.
Yes – you are the expert in yourself, and not the person who has a few fancy certificates on their office wall; they are just another human being joining you on your very personal journey. A client-centred counsellor will not solve your problems for you; they will not tell you what to do or how to do it, and they will not make decisions for you. They will also not analyse or diagnose. What they will do, however, is provide a safe and confidential space in which you will be able to explore things that are troubling you and make sense of your feelings and emotions so that you can find your own answers. You will decide what you want to bring into the session and there will be no schedule that you will have to stick to. You will be in charge!
You will be able to be the true “you” in all your uniqueness. What you will receive is compassion and understanding, non-judgmental and unconditional respect, and the full attention of the counsellor who will offer their honest and genuine selves. These three aspects of client-centred therapy are what Carl Rogers called the core conditions and he gave them some fancy names: empathy, unconditional positive regard, and congruence (sometimes referred to as “genuineness”).
If you have around 45 minutes spare I invite you to watch Rogers’ session with Gloria Szymanski. Gloria was a real client who in 1965 tried three different approaches to psychotherapy: person-centred therapy, Gestalt therapy, and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT, a form of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy). All three sessions were recorded and are now available to watch on Youtube. They’re an invaluable source of knowledge for psychology and psychotherapy students as it lets us see the founding fathers of psychotherapy in action!
Below is the link to the video of Gloria’s person-centred therapy session with Rogers:
First of all, the organisation or the counsellor will go through the terms of the relationship with you in the first meeting; it’s called contracting. This will help both you and the therapist to establish some clear and fair rules and boundaries, such as:
Organisations and therapists understand that it is a difficult, but very brave, step to seek therapy so no one will tell you off for not showing up or cancelling! However, some waiting lists are miles long so these rules are in place to ensure that everyone has fair access to therapy and to encourage you to commit to the therapy.
A very important part of contracting is confidentiality. A counselling room is a little bit like Las Vegas – you’ve probably heard that ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’. A very similar rule applies to therapy – what you bring up in the session stays between you and your therapist, however, in a few special instances the counsellor might have to break the confidentiality – they will try and speak to you about this first though:
Also, you should be aware that therapists accredited by the BACP are required to have regular supervision during which they discuss their work with a supervisor. This is to ensure that they work in the client’s best interest, conduct sessions correctly (i.e. provide the core conditions, follow ethical principles and professional code of conduct etc.), and it gives them a chance to get help and advice from a more experienced practitioner.
But you should rest assured that everything is anonymous and they would not use any information that would let anyone identify you personally, so it’s nothing to worry about. They certainly do not meet to discuss some saucy bits from their clients’ lives and the ‘Vegas rule’ applies to the supervisory session too!
In everyday conversations silence can feel very awkward and uncomfortable, but in counselling they can have huge value and meaning. So if this happens in your session, don’t feel like you need to fill the gap – which is what many student counsellors (including me!) feel like doing. Embrace it instead; make use of it for reflection, to make connections between what has been said and how it made you feel, to recover from sometimes overwhelming feelings. Your counsellor will want to give you as much space as you need and sometimes the silence can be very facilitative – sometimes it’s exactly what you need.
Throughout our lives we experience many endings and they aren’t always straightforward or well-handled. We aren’t always given a chance to prepare for an ending, for example an unexpected break down of a relationship or marriage, abandonment, or a death of a loved one. Our past experiences of endings may make us anxious or fearful of ending yet another thing in our lives – and it’s not just any thing.
In the course of therapy you will have developed what is called a therapeutic relationship with the counsellor, which is a very special and unique kind of relationship – ending it might become difficult and emotional not just for you but for the therapist too. It is a very important part of the therapeutic process and the therapist will do their best to ensure the ending is good for you and well-handled. After all, they will not want to reinforce feelings of anxiety or abandonment but they will want to ensure that you are ready and well-prepared to move on with your life with them not being a part of it. However, if you ever feel like you need them again in the future their door will always be open for you.
Because ending is such a crucial part of therapy it is important to remember that some organisations offer only a limited number of sessions and they might not always be able to offer more or might have to put you back in the queue if you ask for more. It usually isn’t a problem if you’re undertaking paid therapy though.
Whatever your situation, it is helpful to be aware of the approach of the ending and to prepare for it emotionally and mentally. When the time comes, the last session will give you an opportunity to review the therapeutic process and discuss what the experience was like for you, what you liked and disliked about it, what you learned about yourself, and what your plans for the future beyond therapy are.