Guest blog: Neil Loffhagen

My first guest blog comes from Neil, who is a person-centred, focusing-oriented therapist. His website is available here.
Without more ado:
As counsellors in training great insights are gained concerning ourselves. Yet of all the things that I learnt about myself, I yearned for the day of completing the diploma or other qualification we are seeking. I certainly had a feeling of great relief obtaining my counselling diploma. Yet, there was and still is a feeling of never quite knowing enough. I propose that such a feeling is beneficial for ourselves and in particular our clients. Let me share my thoughts.

Recently I started re-reading “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Susuki. In the first chapter, for me, a most significant phrase is:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

I wonder, as in any field of expertise, as we learn more, as we study more, if there is a danger that we can become too “expert” or fixed in our view of things? I think this can happen almost unconsciously. It is not that we really think we are better to know more than our clients. Yet, if we are not careful, we may inadvertently come across that way. Perhaps, we may start to see all clients in the same light.

Whilst training I was privileged to have a placement with a youth counselling agency. I still remember vividly my second ever client. A woman in her early 20s sat down. We went through the agency contracting process. Then, calmly, the lady said she’d had an abortion six months ago and couldn’t get through the acute self-blame and shame she felt. My immediate thoughts ranged from “Why have you chosen to see me, a man?” (the agency always asked a client if they would prefer a female or male counsellor) to “I can’t do this, I don’t know anything about abortion”. Add to this our first child was still-born. What was I to do?

I felt in quite a difficult situation. There was really only one thing I could do – put aside everything I had previously known, learnt and experienced, to simply be with the client, to be “good enough”. I had been taught much, plus had some wonderful experiences gained through triads, goldfish bowls, etc., about congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy. Now, obviously theory is good and crucial. However, being congruent, being empathic and having unconditional regard in the room with a client is very different compared to reading about another person’s experience and theory. Academic learning is never wasted, but it had to be put aside to be with this client.

I had to be with her, not with something I thought she ought to be. I had to be alongside her as she came to figure things out. Which she did. this blog post is not about what went on in the room between us. It is more about how I had then a “beginner’s mind” in a real and quite literal sense. It is how I seek to maintain that state of mind when seeing all new clients. As I keep a “beginner’s mind” I feel it helps the client be more open to “many possibilities” of change that can come.

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