John Whelehan Therapeutic Counselling

Counselling Psychology in FULHAM & Epsom

We all decry prejudice, yet we are all prejudiced. – Herbert Spencer

Last week, while sitting at my desk, I heard a knock at the door. The building where I work houses various projects, fostering occasional visits from colleagues. However, my desk faces away from the door, making it impossible for me to identify the person knocking. After a quick mental rundown of possibilities, I deduced that it was probably a colleague from the floor below on his customary Friday afternoon visit. He enjoys tempting me with doughnuts

In response, I often feign awareness of my eating choices, politely declining his offer, only to eventually succumb to the temptation. Our interactions haven't quite reached the level of ritual, but they occur frequently enough that I anticipated the impending standoff as I swivelled in my chair to greet him. To my surprise, it was someone else.

This incident serves to underscore a personal realization—I am inherently prejudiced. While the term "prejudice" may typically evoke thoughts of discriminatory behaviour, here, I use it in its simplest form: to pre-judge or make assumptions based on past experiences.

Human brains are wired to ensure survival, using past information to inform future decisions. Our experiences with people, places, and things shape our perceptions and decision-making processes. However, it's crucial to recognize that our individual experiences make us uniquely predisposed to certain assumptions, and staying mindful of this fact can be challenging in the moment.

Unconscious Judgement:
Reflecting on a recent incident with my daughter reinforces the idea of unconscious judgment. While picking up her younger brothers from nursery, she suddenly panicked about crossing the road. Despite knowing the road was clear, I found myself frustrated for a couple of reasons: firstly, I was in a hurry, and her anxiety felt disruptive; secondly, I expected her to trust my judgment implicitly. This situation illustrates how my reaction was influenced by my own agenda and assumptions about her thoughts regarding me as a father.

Here, we see that our reactions are often informed by our personal agendas and assumptions, making it crucial for counsellors to be aware of their prejudices. Differences between counsellors and clients are inevitable, and acknowledging and understanding these differences is crucial to ensuring that the empathic process is not hindered.

Implications for Counselling:
Counsellors should enter the therapeutic process recognizing that they are as much a part of it as the client. Being aware of differences and pre-empting potential prejudices arising from these differences allows for a more effective therapeutic process. While it might be tempting to believe that counsellors should enter the process devoid of prejudices, this is both unrealistic and potentially counterproductive.

In the realm of person-centred and psychodynamic approaches, practitioners argue that a self-rejecting or self-punishing therapist who denies their own prejudices risks perpetuating a charade that clients can sense. Psychodynamic therapy, in particular, thrives on the counsellor’s acknowledgment of their interaction with the client, prejudices included, making it an effective therapeutic tool.

The Way Forward:
In my counselling work, I accept that I am an integral part of the process, and being aware of the differences between myself and my clients is essential. By acknowledging and accepting these differences, I can better navigate and dispense with any prejudices that may arise. It's important to recognize that prejudices are natural, and denying them would be denying our humanity. Instead, embracing self-acceptance is just as vital as self-awareness in facilitating the counsellor’s role effectively.

In conclusion, the acknowledgment and understanding of prejudices in counselling are imperative for a successful therapeutic process. Accepting our limitations as human beings allows for more effective facilitation of the counsellor’s role and fosters a healthier therapeutic relationship.

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© John Whelehan

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