‘Every time I sit down with a client I’m privileged to learn something new'

Simon Whalley works as a counselling psychologist at the House Partnership. While stressing that ‘the therapy is about the client, rather than us’, he answered our questions about his life as a psychologist.

How did you first get interested in psychology? Was it a personal interest, something you got involved with at school or a later influence?
I came to the area around the age of 30. After leaving school I decided to study graphic design at college for a couple of years, then became a designer and worked in studios all over the southeast of England. I began to move to project management roles, eventually ending up as a multimedia project manager for a large US corporation. After a number of years I realised that I’d lost interest in what I was doing and needed a new challenge. I’d always wanted to go to university and had realised that I really enjoyed interacting with other people and wanted to study something that was relevant. This all coincided with me seeing a therapist for the first time due to difficulties I was experiencing. I decided to combine my interest in people and therapy and started the long journey to becoming a counselling psychologist.

I had to start right at the beginning of the educational route. I spent a year at a London college on an Access to Higher Education course, then applied to UCL to study for a BSc in psychology Once I’d graduated, I ended up at Regent’s University where I studied on the DCounsPsych in counselling psychology.

What surprised you about studying psychology, and what did you find difficult?
I don’t think I was particularly surprised. I’d spent a lot of time researching the various options and knew what to expect. However, a lot of undergraduates are surprised with having to learn statistics to such an extent. When I studied at UCL the emphasis was very much on quantitative research, so learning statistics was extremely important. However, in my final year I was introduced to qualitative research methods for the first time, which really piqued my interest.

I also know that many psychology undergraduates start studying the subject because they have an interest in therapy and working on a one-to-one basis with people in distress. However, you’re not really exposed to that until you move on to a postgraduate level. You need the scientific foundation before that. In counselling psychology we often talk about the scientist-practitioner model. The science part comes from learning the foundations of psychology, and it’s essential for understanding academic journals.

What I found most difficult was simply going back to education after so many years away – being surrounded by incredibly bright kids was somewhat overwhelming. They’d come straight from school and were like sponges, soaking up knowledge at an alarming rate. I think it took me about a year to get the hang of it!

Moving from an undergraduate to a doctorate programme was also quite a challenge, but for different reasons – it required a shift in perspective. For example, academic writing at UCL was always from a third-person voice. Then I started on the counselling psychology programme and found myself having to speak from the first-person perspective on many pieces of work. It was both liberating yet exposing at the same time.

When did you first start getting interested in counselling psychology?
To be able to work out problems collaboratively with a stranger, in a safe and relaxing environment, was an amazingly powerful experience. I must have stored that away in my memory from my own therapy for a number of years, only for it to surface when I thought about going back into education. Once I’d decided to go ‘back to school’ I knew I wanted to end up as a counselling psychologist. I never lost sight of that goal, even though it took about ten years to get there!

I was attracted by the possibility of having a portfolio career. My roles before re-entering education involved commuting to and from the same place of work, five days a week. Once counselling psychology became my goal I knew I wanted to mix up my working week a little – two or three days working with clients, a few days in teaching and some time also spent on research. I’ve managed to achieve two out of three so far – I haven’t quite found the time for research yet! On the website of the House Partnership you comment ‘far more important than any approach is building a non-judgemental, trusting therapeutic relationship based on mutual honesty and respect’. Many students might be struggling to learn techniques – particularly CBT. Why is relationship building so important?

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that one of the key elements to successful therapy is the therapeutic relationship – often called the therapeutic alliance.

In fact, the evidence suggests the relationship is much more important than the actual therapy model used itself. I remember when I first started looking into working as a therapist there seemed to be so much discussion about what model is the most effective. Luckily counselling psychology’s foundations are based upon a humanistic ethos, where we ‘work with’, not ‘do therapy to’.Some psychologists I interview complain about the ‘medicalisation’ of psychological practice and the fact that CBT seems to have become a dominant model, irrespective of the client’s issues. Counselling and coaching psychologists in particular seem to argue this.

I agree that mental health has become increasingly medicalised over the last few decades. We saw the anti-psychiatry movement fighting against that in the 1960s and the fight continues to this day. Counselling psychologists tend to be rather vociferous about this issue. This isn’t surprising considering the humanistic, existential underpinnings of the profession. Certainly medicine has helped many people who live with certain psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but medicalisation is now encroaching on many other aspects of our everyday existence, such as grief, sadness and worry. These are all normal aspects of being human, and I think it’s wrong to label these emotions as something we need to ‘cure’. There are some who argue that this encroachment isn’t helped by a number of pharmaceutical companies producing and promoting medication to help banish various fundamental human emotions they label as unwanted.

I think CBT has had an overly bad press over the last 20 years or so. Maybe it’s been a victim of its own success in a way. It was often touted as being a panacea for all of life’s ills and was viewed by some as a technique-heavy, manualised form of therapy that ignored the therapeutic relationship altogether. These views, arguably, weren’t helped by the introduction of the IAPT scheme, where counselling psychologists and others in a similar role saw people within the NHS undergoing relatively short training to ‘administer’ CBT to the service user.

However, I think a lot of these arguments are unfair. What people often don’t realise is how creative and flexible you can be with CBT. It’s not the rigid model people often say it is. Also there are a number of excellent tools within CBT that can be used extremely well in conjunction with other types of therapy. This leads me to one of the unique aspects of counselling psychology – its willingness to embrace pluralism when working with clients. Nowadays we’re trained in two models of therapy – in fact, at Regent’s University London we give our trainees a good grounding in existential-phenomenological, psychodynamic and CBT approaches. Our discipline has humanistic underpinnings when working with clients in distress. We try to see all of our clients as unique individuals, working collaboratively rather than with a diagnosis or pathologised set of symptoms.

If you were talking to someone who was interested in training in counselling psychology what would you tell them?
Firstly, I would start by saying do plenty of research. Try to understand what counselling psychology is all about, how it differs from clinical and other applied psychologies. Secondly, before starting the training, I would encourage people to gain some experience working with people in distress. Volunteer with organisations, such as the Samaritans or MIND. This way you will find out if working with people experiencing mental health difficulties is really for you. It can be stressful at times and requires a great deal of concentration. When you’re with a client you need to be there with and for them at all times. It’s not for everybody, and if you gain some experience before entering training and discover that it’s not for you, then you can start thinking about other directions to take. Being trusted and allowed to enter a client’s personal world is a great privilege, but with that comes a great responsibility. Some people may struggle with that.

I’m not sure if there’s a downside, to be honest. Counselling psychology allows you to have an extremely varied portfolio career and, for me, working in private practice affords me great flexibility and a healthy work–life balance.

How does supervision help ?
Good supervision is absolutely vital to good clinical practice, but finding the right fit can sometimes take some time. You need to find a supervisor whom you trust and respect and who will challenge you in all aspects of your work. During training it sometimes feels as if your work is under scrutiny – you can find yourself becoming slightly defensive at times. It’s so important to be completely open during supervision – that’s when you can find yourself making massive leaps forward in your work.

Don’t be afraid to shop around. Try out a few supervisors. However, if you find yourself switching too often, then maybe you need to reflect a little and ask yourself if you are finding the supervision process difficult itself.

Tell me a bit about the House Partnership.
It was established in 2011 to provide therapy and counselling to professional workers in central London. We see it as our ‘general practice’, in contrast to our specialist addictions practice, City Addictions, which provides an outpatient service for a range of substance and behavioural addictions. Our joint aim is simply to provide excellent service to all our clients. Both practices now operate from two period properties, one in Wimpole Street, adjacent to Harley Street, the other on the edge of the City of London, near St Paul’s Cathedral. Unlike other similar practices we consist exclusively of counselling and clinical psychologists.

What new projects or areas of activity are you thinking about at the moment?
Later on in the year I want to start concentrating more on my clinical work and maybe start to become more involved in clinical supervision too. I enjoy clinical supervision with trainees immensely.

If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?
To be honest, I’m not sure I’d change anything at the moment. I’m happy with my work–life balance and I find my clinical work extremely rewarding and stimulating. Every time I sit down with a client I’m privileged to learn something new, and I don’t think I’d ever want to change anything about that.

How do you relax?
This may not be very environmentally friendly, but I’m a bit of a self-confessed petrolhead! Anything car-related helps me to unwind, whether on a race track or on a quiet country road at six o’clock on a Saturday or Sunday morning. I’m also quite a computer game fan, so I find becoming completely immersed in a good game helps me to switch off from time to time.

Might you have an interesting story to tell about your career path, the highs and lows of your current role or the professional challenges you are facing?

If you would like to be considered for a ‘Careers’ interview in The Psychologist, get in touch with the editor Dr Jon Sutton ([email protected]). Of course there are many other ways to contribute to The Psychologist, but this is one that many find to be particularly quick, easy and enjoyable.

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