Welcome to our very first ‘On The Couch’ interview, this is where we get the chance to talk up close and personal with some of the therapists that have their practice here in HQ Therapy Rooms and try to find out how their own personal life experiences have helped them transcend and find empathy with the different therapy approaches they now use in their counselling work. Think of it like ‘therapy for therapists.’
My name is Melanie Cox and I am a Psychotherapist and TRE Practitioner and today I have the pleasure of talking with Person-Centred Counsellor Daniel Weigand about how he uses Focusing-Oriented Therapy and a Person-Centred Approach in his work as a counsellor and explore his own personal journey that made him interested in these techniques.
So let’s get started:
MELANIE:Hello Daniel, thank you for joining us on our first-ever On the Couch session. Before we start tell us a little bit about yourself.
DANIEL: Hello Melanie and thank you for inviting me onto the couch today. My name is Daniel Wiegand, I turned 43 at the beginning of October and I live in Hackney. I first became interested in counselling when I was a volunteer on the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. The experience of offering emotional support to callers and connecting with them inspired me to go and train as a counsellor at the City Lit Institute in Holborn. I use a person-centred approach in my counselling which I enjoy, as the most important aspect of the work is the relationship between the client and therapist. Working with a person-centred approach gives people the opportunity to talk through their difficulties, untangle their thoughts and find ways of doing things that are better for them. Experiencing a counsellor who is caring and understanding can help a person be caring and understanding to themselves in turn.
MELANIE: So when you started at HQ Therapy, you mentioned that you applied for Focusing. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
DANIEL: Well, I’ll try to give you a bit of context. I moved to New York just over two years ago due to my husband’s job. The visa that I went to the US on did not allow me to do any paid work. When I arrived, it was very exciting at first and then as time went on, the novelty wore off. I started to feel very isolated and very lonely and not connected to the place. That was very difficult and it made me feel really homesick. When I was feeling homesick, it kind of made me feel like I wasn’t making the most of everything. I had an idea in my head that everyone else would be coping better than me and I wasn’t making the most of everything and I think feeling like that made me not want to engage. That’s when Focusing really helped me. I applied for a course in ‘Focusing-Oriented Therapy’, and I would work every week with a focusing partner. She lived in Colorado so we did it over Skype and having that relationship with her and that pause and having a bit of space, and having a bit of time to spend with that part that felt homesick rather than push it away and not engage with it and try to be making the best of things, which wasn’t really working. The great thing about Focusing is, it’s a very meditative form of therapy. I like to work with imagery and to attach images to feel what the sense of homesickness was and spend time with it and keep it company. I learnt about what it was worried about. For example, it was very worried my friends back home would forget about me and I would lose touch with them. Having that understanding of it helped it to become more of a part of me rather than trying to reject it and ignore it and trying to not listen to it. That part of me really wanted to be heard and listened to. Once I had given it that space there, I had a better relationship with it and then as a consequence of that, my relationship with New York changed and I found a real sense of community there. It ended up being a great learning experience and I don’t think I would have had that without the Focusing experience. It was really valuable.
MELANIE: Can you say something about the transition between the Focusing work you did with this woman and how that transition did practically into your day-to-day life? So you started to befriend this part of yourself and then something started to shift?
DANIEL: Yes, so before that I felt very unmotivated and it was even difficult to get out of bed and have a shower in the morning because I was just feeling so crushed by this feeling of homesickness. However, when I started to engage with it more and having an actual understanding, I felt more able to do things and felt more buoyant or more able to hold that part of me and be a bit kinder to myself.
MELANIE: How did you notice that something shifted for you?
DANIEL: I noticed it by actually being more engaging with the city that I was living in. I started doing some voluntary work with an organisation for elderly people called SAGE. I ran a social group and I would take people to and from their hospital visits but then I stopped doing the social group at the end, and I wanted to be what’s called a friendly visitor. It was mainly for people who could not leave the house. I would go round to their house and read to them or take them out for a little walk. So yes the Focusing allowed me to engage with all of that really and become a part of the city and having that connection and those relationships made me feel more part of the world. I think beforehand I felt very separate from the city and it was so lonely. Then when I started doing that, I made friends in my own neighbourhood and it was very different by the end.
MELANIE: So it sounds like it was almost imperceptible, the shift between Focusing work and then how it started to impact your life at home. It appears that things changed without you consciously realising?
DANIEL: Yeah! I think it was just about not being too hard on myself. When I was feeling homesick I felt a part of me was feeling ungrateful for the opportunity and I wasn’t making the most of it. I think feeling homesick and then feeling that as well, it felt really paralysing and I ended up not doing anything. I think having a better relationship with those parts and having empathy for them and empathy and kindness for myself.
MELANIE: It lifted the self criticism.
DANIEL: Yes it did.
MELANIE: So that might be the subtle thing that happened between the Focusing and the change in your life.
DANIEL: Yeah. That self-criticism was quite a loud voice at that point. I felt like I’d failed and the experience and I imagined other people would have coped better with it and made more of it.
MELANIE: So somehow you went into comparing yourself as well as part of the criticism.
DANIEL: Yeah. It wasn’t anybody in particular that I was comparing it to. It was kind of like imagined here. I felt really crippled at the very beginning of it. I found it very difficult. I think before I moved I’d been so busy and then to not have the structure there of life, I found it really difficult.
MELANIE: So you went from being really busy in London to going to New York and having nothing. It’s a sharp contrast.
DANIEL: Yeah. Very much so.
MELANIE: You mentioned at the beginning that you’re a person-centred counsellor and you were that before you went to New York.
DANIEL: Yeah, the person-centred approach to counselling was another layer into it as well. I thought other people’s idea of a counsellor is somebody who would be very good at change and adapting to change. I think another part of the criticism was that I’m a counsellor and I’m not coping very well with this new situation. That was another part of this self-criticism.
MELANIE: Like it served as another stick to beat yourself rather than a support.
DANIEL: Yeah, when you said the stick to beat yourself, I really felt how awful that part was. It was so tough at that point.
MELANIE: Yeah I’m sorry, I know often when we do these jobs at therapy, other people think ‘oh you’re a therapist, you should know and you should be bigger than that’. We get a lot of that pressure sometimes.
DANIEL: I think you can be perceived as the expert on wellbeing.
MELANIE: And you have that view of yourself, ‘I should be an expert here’.
DANIEL: Yeah. ‘I should be coping better than I was’.
MELANIE: It wakes us up to our human side doesn’t it?
DANIEL: Yeah totally.
MELANIE: Through that you develop another tool. We reach out, don’t we? We seek at points like that.
DANIEL: The Focusing was definitely part of that. Just taking time out to really focus on what’s going on inside and feeling a sense of something and then kind of holding on to the corner of it, and being with it and getting more of a sense of it and seeing more of the shape of it. Yeah, it was such a powerful thing to do. My focusing partner Terri, even though she was in Colorado, it felt like a really strong relationship.
MELANIE: Despite the distances and technology, you were still able to bond and it was a very powerful tool.
DANIEL: Yeah she became a very good friend and came over to New York and we became very close.
MELANIE: Will you say a bit more about how Focussing worked for you then?
DANIEL: The process is very contemplative and meditative and at first just noticing your feet on the floor and feeling the support of the chair and every single breath. You’re the person that can guide you into that beginning part and then it’s just being quiet and noticing where in your body you might be holding something and just almost just getting the edge of a feeling or a sense of something and not rushing the process. Just being present with it and maybe there’s a word that you can attach to it or an image that you can attach to what this feeling might be. Then that kind of helps you explore it a bit more. Very much for me, I like to work with images and having an image in my head is how I make sense of the world and how I’m feeling. So keeping that homesick part of me company and having a sort of dialogue with it and finding out what it’s worried about and what I can do to reassure it or how I can be with it or how it wants to be and listening to its voice. It was talking about what its concerns and worries were and is very much about my relationships back home and the impact of it being so far away from home was going to have on them. It was very afraid of being forgotten about and my friends being less concerned about me, and drifting apart. I was very worried that that was going to happen.
Melanie: So when you could take a pause and stopped being critical, and listened and accepted that part of yourself, it then provided you with some information, and that information you could then rationalise.
Daniel: Yes at first it just felt like that neon sign of homesickness and not having any real understanding of it. I think when it was so big like that I felt so overwhelmed by it and quite small in comparison.
Melanie: Sounds quite intimidating.
Daniel: The only sense I had was that it was a huge world of homesickness and it was quite hard to find out more about it because it felt opposable and something I couldn’t work with. Then having an understanding about what it was worried about and having empathy for that part and looking after that part of me at the same time if that makes sense. So it didn’t become this neon sign anymore. It became like a younger version of me that I could take care of and put my arm around and reassure.
Melanie: So using the word focus, the focus moved from the sign to you and that small person.
Melanie: I think we all have a child part that needs nurturing and you never know what that child part is after. It’s only with reflection and hindsight we see that. But I guess that’s what focusing helps us do. Just pause.
Daniel: Yes these pauses are so important. With Focusing, even just noticing your breath, the first time when you do that you can immediately feel just the stillness and being connected to the earth and it was instantaneous. It was like obviously something in me was ready for and really needed it. Even just noticing my breath in those moments was helpful in itself.
Melanie: Powerful and so simple. The one thing I like about Focusing is we all have it. It’s not some kind of special tool. We just sit with what we’ve got.
Daniel: Yes you’re so right it’s just so simple. You do not need to do too much with those parts. You just need to hear what they have to say and being listened to. It’s incredible what you can get from something like that.
Melanie: People don’t know about it do they? It’s such a nice simple thing.
Daniel: It is! Just being witnessed and heard is so transforming.
Melanie: You just mentioned being witnessed. Being witnessed by another but also by yourself.
Daniel: I think having somebody else there makes it an, even more, greater learning experience. Maybe it’s having it reflected back to you by them or just knowing that whilst you’re in this moment, there is somebody else following you along. Like a riverbank. That’s how I always imagined it with Terri. I was in the water and Terri was at the side, so it was nice to know that somebody else was there.
Melanie: Can you say a little bit about what it’s like to be the witness? I imagine you carry this on with your client’s now?
Daniel: Yeah. What’s it like to witness? It’s quite hard to describe but it can feel like something chemical happening and I think it’s having that connection with somebody and really seeing somebody for who they are. It can be the most astonishing feeling. It can feel like you can float all the way home afterwards because something has really happened. It’s hard to put in to words but it feels like something bigger than two people almost. I think really seeing somebody is such an incredible thing. It’s an experience.
Melanie: It sounds like it really impacts you.
Daniel: Yeah, it’s about that connection really and our connections with people. Relationships with people are the most important thing in the world. For me it’s so amazing.
Melanie: That’s lovely. It’s a nice place to finish. Would you like to say anything more?
Daniel: I think just about how close Focusing and working using a person-centred approach is. It informs the person of an understanding and a desire to connect and to see people and to have empathy for all those different parts they might bring. I see them very close.
Melanie: How would you see that Focussing and a person-centred approach are different?
Daniel: I think sometimes the difference might be that Focusing therapy might be a bit more directive than working in a person-centred way might be. Sometimes that doesn’t necessarily feel like a good fit for me because I don’t really like to direct too much. So that was a different way of being and took a bit of getting used to.
Melanie: I would agree that is the difference between person-centred therapy and Focusing. Focusing leads people in doing specific tasks whereas using a person-centred approach is so focused on client-led work or dynamic. So how did you come to terms with that? How did you give up a little bit of that ‘person-centred bit of you?
Daniel: It was hard! When something is a part of your bones and then you’re expected to do something different, I found it quite difficult to do. It almost felt like treading on someone’s experience or where they wanted to go. I wanted to be by the side of it rather than pushing it somewhere.
Melanie: When you do use it, what do you find?
Daniel: What do I find? Gosh, it’s something I really need to think about! I find there’s still a part of me that still prickles about it and feels like I don’t necessarily want to suggest something, but I do it, but then I’m thinking does that really change the relationship between me and the person who I’m doing it with? I’m going to say no.
Melanie: So you found your way of coming to terms with it and it doesn’t change the person and it still fits with your ethos and further supports them?
Daniel: Yeah because the nature of the two things is different. Even though they’re very close.
Melanie: I understand what you’re saying. They are very close and the nature of them is so different. Person-centred therapy is so focused on the client leading but it’s person-centred approach is still a humanistic form of therapy too. There’s that book about it called “The Radical Acceptance of Everything” by Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin which is kind of the way how the person-centred approach works. You are radically accepting everything about the client and trusting them to know what to do for themselves. In that way, focusing does parallel. It’s also this radical acceptance. You just go with what the client says. That you might be interacting more.
Daniel: There’s definitely things you can do to help shift things. Maybe it’s more suggesting than directing I feel.
Melanie: That would make sense with how it fits with your ethos.
Daniel: Yeah so for example if you are focusing with somebody, is there a word or a sound as a suggestion. If there wasn’t, it might open up another field for them to define something else that might better represent it.
Melanie: I guess I’m thinking about the value you got from being witnessed and sometimes we don’t know that we can be witnessed by someone standing on the stairs listening in. Sometimes what gets reflected back or mirrored comes from the invitation or suggestions of direct responses to what you feel is present.
Daniel: Actually as you were saying that it made me think that just hearing that person’s words and knowing that they are there is kind of like the words are like a hand reaching out to you. That’s what it feels like.
Melanie: I can often feel with a person-centred approach you can flounder a little bit. Sometimes you need a little bit of a guide. I sometimes felt like that in-person development groups. Where is this going to go? There’s nobody leading this – utter chaos. Whereas focusing is just feeling a little bit back in.
Melanie: Thank you very much for your time.
Daniel: Thank you!