On being an anxious counsellor

The assessment notes told me that my first ever client, whom I was about to meet, suffered from childhood trauma, generalised anxiety disorder and OCD. Naturally, I felt overwhelmed. More than that, I immediately felt panic at the scale of this client’s problems. What was I to do when I too suffered from childhood trauma and generalised anxiety? I baulked at the pressure – imagined on my part, I would later realise – that was suddenly on me to solve such a client’s problems. During training, specifically during the compulsory personal therapy I had been receiving as part of training, I’d learned that I wasn’t just shy or a bit socially awkward. It occurred to me I had been subject to prolonged trauma thanks to years of bullying at school, and that I had lived with an anxiety disorder ever since. Together with my therapist I had explored the notion that my anxiety was in fact a symptom of PTSD. Panic attacks were regular hazards in a life consisting of incessant low level dread. I’d had bouts of therapy before, but none so deep or extensive as this. Now, for the first time, I was naming my experiences as trauma, a step that proved to be essential in healing.

I was coming to my first training placement fresh with all this new and empowering knowledge about myself, only to discover that I was going to be seeing people who lived with the same challenges; that I was going to have be empathic and congruent and unconditionally non-judgemental for them, all whilst holding boundaries and managing my own triggered anxiety. I began to wonder what I had let myself in for.

We were told to expect nerves before our first real session with a client. Nerves, even severe ones, were nothing unusual for me. Still, being faced with someone who seemed to struggle with life as much as I did at times was a unique challenge, one that would stump me again and again as a trainee counsellor. Two years later, on the other side of qualifying, I still get edgy every time I’m to meet a new client (as I do with any new person in a social setting). Those who come in and start filling the space with words will often put me at ease soon enough – the extroverts who have no trouble using their voice, who hardly seem to notice I’m there in the first half hour, don’t elicit the same countertransference as the timid ones – those who, like me, easily lose their voice, who seem to need more from me than quiet empathy.

In two years I have seen many clients and have had to overcome these obstacles on many occasions. I’ve had to wring as much as I can out of supervision and my own therapy, to better understand the roots of my social phobia, and to better compartmentalise it for the benefit of clients. As a result I have been able to help clients with a great range of presenting issues, from OCD to bereavement, uncontrollable anger to addiction. I’ve worked in an IAPT placement, where measurable recovery has to be shown. More recently I’ve worked with students at a drama college, meaning I’ve faced the new challenge of being calm and professional with young people who are more confident, self possessed and out there than I ever was.

Saying “hi, my name’s Josh and I’ll be your counsellor” still feels a little odd, if I’m honest, when I consider the emotional work I still have to do. My own therapeutic journey is far from over. Now and then I catch myself perniciously thinking that a person can’t be a therapist and live with anxiety / panic / PTSD and so on at the same time (which is wrong – clearly they can, because I am).

More recently I have made the work easier for myself by accepting that new clients will always make me nervous, and that this is ok because many counsellors feel that way. I enjoy the work I do with clients wholeheartedly. The utter dread of my first ever session has turned into a far more manageable ‘butterflies’ feeling, and I can look back on some of that work with pride. Whilst meeting a fellow survivor of trauma may still cause me to lose my voice from time to time, I have therapeutic tools that I can use to get it back. By building a strong alliance with the client, I hope to help them get theirs back too.

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