Summer School Day 4

Ok so no preaching this morning! Day 4 was as inspiring and challenging as were days 1-3. We spent the morning considering sex and sexualities; how do difficulties with sex present in relationship counselling? What happens when a couple no longer has sex? What else might be happening for them? What happens when one no longer wants sex and the other does? Might it be different for gay couples, straight couples, polyamorous groups, bisexual people, asexual people? We did a fascinating exercise in triads, where two were asked to play out a scenario as a couple in counselling, and a third act as their therapist. We were given almost half an hour for the ‘session’ with our clients, and so it was possible to see movement and change happening even within the role play. I had the privilege to ‘counsel’ a gay couple in a 4 year relationship where their sex life had never quite got off the ground, and one of them was thinking he might be asexual but homoromantic. A third party had become involved for the sexual partner to have a ‘f*** buddy’. It was a profound experience for me to appreciate the dynamics and sacrifices involved for both men.

In the afternoon we had a visit from a consultant psychiatrist who works with children and young people struggling with gender dysphoria, that is, that they are unhappy with their gender and want to change. She explained to us the complexities of systems involved, from family, school, medical professionals, psychologists, to social services and counsellors, not to mention the young person themselves, with all the emotion and distress on all sides. I am glad to understand the process much more clearly, and both the safeguards and the empathy of the professionals.

So I am left with one big question.

What is the meaning and function of sex for an individual or a couple? Is it the same for everyone? Should it be? Any thoughts?

The ended with my first visit to a shop selling sex toys for women. We played!


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Summer School Day 3

This week is changing me on the inside. It seems to me that as humans we can feel intimidated by the things we know little about or have little experience of. The unknown can be scary; at the same time we feel drawn to it and hold back from it. We need not fear. Human is human; it just may sound different on the outside.

Did I mention yet how grateful I am to be having this opportunity to learn about the issues that GSD (Gender and Sexual Diversity) people face every day? So grateful.

Once again I am sitting on the 8.51 reflecting on Day 3, and preparing for Day 4. Each time I look inside of me to find what it is I am trying to articulate about the experience of this week, words fail me but I notice my heart thump in my chest because its import feels huge.

A young friend said to me yesterday: “in 2 particular subjects at during Year 9 (at secondary school) we were told where we should sit, rather than choosing our seat. I spent the whole year in both subjects sitting next to a really chavvy girl. I thought we wouldn’t get on, but she was really quite ok. We even had a laugh sometimes”. So long as we project ‘the problem’ into a group of people with whom we don’t identify, the problem is them, never us. Can we see and listen with open hearts and minds? This week I have met polyamory, kink, BDSM, transgender, gay and lesbian individuals. I set myself to learn as much as I could, and I find that these ways of loving so different to mine are not the problem. I am the problem if I meet labels rather than people.

So to Day 3…

In the morning sessions we looked at intersecting Identities; someone who identifies with several ‘labels’, perhaps a black or Asian lesbian might face very different challenges to a white middle-class lesbian. As therapists we need to listen to and take account of all the identities a client brings. In the afternoon we had presentations and did some practical work around internalised oppression. The external oppressions we considered on day 2 can become internalised – that is the external voices can be internalised and the client then experiences deep shame, as it hard to separate the two. Instead of hearing others say I am worthless, I say to myself I am worthless. We looked at ways of working with this deep difficulty in the therapy room.

It was an intense afternoon, in that we all did some personal work on our own internalised oppressions surrounding our own intersecting identities. Hmmmm.

So begins Day 4. My heart is strangely warmed… and I can’t help noticing that Ramadan has begun as I walk through Finsbury Park.

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Summer School Day 2

I could get used to this! My parents run a fantastic B&B; cup of tea in bed, breakfast on the table, an evening meal when I get home, lifts to and from the train station, they even walk the dog and play with him!

I enjoyed day 2 even more than the first…

The morning sessions were about identifying with diversity, and identifying external oppression. We did a fascinating but tough exercise in which we had to choose just 5 photos 0f people, both highly sexualised and not, from the hundreds of photos spread out over a large table. The criteria were to choose: the one with which we most identified; the one with which we least identified; the one to which we were most attracted; the one to which we were least attracted; the one we found most challenging. We then had 40 minutes in pairs to share and talk about our choices. The exercise felt quite revealing of self and to self of some things that were perhaps out of awareness. Intriguingly my partner (a trans man) and I were similarly drawn to kind, open, interesting faces, and least drawn to people in contexts and environments with which we felt nothing in common. This was followed by a presentation with plenty of open discussion about some of the journey of lesbian and gay communities especially in the early days of the gay rights movement, focusing on external oppression. Highlighted was the price paid by early activists in being committed to mental institutions, being criminalised, experiencing rejection after rejection, being misunderstood, vilified, stigmatised and excluded. It was quite an emotional morning.

The entire afternoon was focused on the process of ‘Coming Out’, which is never just a one time occurrence, but a repeated process in many varied contexts such as family, workplace, perhaps spouse; the list is endless. We looked at many of the associated difficulties and fears, and potential serious consequences for some. We looked at therapeutic situations, and imagined how we might help someone work through this process.

The after hours social visit was to ‘London Friend’ the longest running project in London to support GSD people however they need support; group work, individual counselling, health checks, STI screening, social groups, drop-ins. It was inspiring.

If day 1 felt rich, day 2 stirred a much deeper personal commitment to engage in this work therapeutically, and an emotional response to those who have lived through deeper and more scarring experiences than I could have imagined. May God be my helper.

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Summer School Day 1 continued…

So how was the first day? Now I have had a chance to sleep on it, to process things a little it is time to write, while heading south once more on the 8.51 train for Day 2.

Well, it was almost overwhelming. 12 participants from 11 nations (now why does that feel so familiar?) identifying as almost every diversity of sexuality and gender under the sun: asexual, bisexual, lesbian, gay, men who love men (but don’t identify as gay), polyamorous, transgender (female to male), kinky, queer, oh yes, and one straight woman. I am so grateful for this opportunity to meet and become friends with, to learn from such fabulous individuals.

For the obligatory and necessarily useful ‘introduce yourself to us’ half hour at the start of the day, we wrote our name on the board since a great deal of what we are processing this week has to do with identity, and then we shared as much or as little as we wanted of the meaning or origin of our name. It afforded the chance to see and hear each individual as a person, as an assortment of identities, rather than merely sharing information.

Most of the remainder of the morning was given over to small group discussions with a plenary report back based on these questions: What do I want for my ‘self’ from this week? What do I want for me as a therapist? What do i want for society this week? Anything else? Rich discussion followed.

In the afternoon we had a lecture from Dominic Davies the founder of Pink Therapy, on the origins  of what started out as gay affirmative therapy, developed into LGBT therapy, then Gender and Sexual Minority Therapy, and is now becoming known as Gender and Sexual Diversity Therapy. We learned that linking together the vast array of sexualities and genders that can be identified, there are two common themes that emerge: hypervigilance to others’ reactions and prejudices; internalised shame and anger about being different in a hetero-normative world.

The teaching finished at 5pm and we had a optional ‘social’ programme, which yesterday was a visit to 56 Dean Street, an LGBT sexual health clinic run by the NHS in Soho, and a chance to experience gay and lesbian bars in the area, and to note their differences. I was intrigued that one lesbian bar has the usual loud music playing, but upstairs was a quieter lounge for women to sit and chat and get to know one another more.

I realised just how cloistered I have been and in some ways how naive and inexperienced I am. But during the course of the day I noticed a subtle change in myself, reminiscent of my first trip to Central Asia. “They” went from being labels, categories, types to being “thou” in the old use of the word, someone I know, respect, and identify with, a fellow human being with a whole lifetime of a story to tell, and with whom I have far more in common than I have different.

I feel rich.

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Summer School Day 1

So this is how it feels to be a ‘computer’. I’m on the 8.21 fast train, stopping only at Stevenage and Finsbury Park (where I get off). Looking around the train all the others seem accustomed to this. Of the seven people immediately surrounding me one is reading a book, one a kindle, one a glossy magazine and three are using mobile phones and appear to be playing games. At least one has  well developed thumb muscles!

The remaining passenger of the seven intrigues me. She has a pink bag on her lap and clutches a small bottle of water. Her eyes are focused out of the window at infinity and periodically a frown passes across her face and then is gone again. My imagination is hooked – what is bothering her? What is the frown saying? Has she left a seriously ill child at home? Perhaps an elderly relative? Is she facing another tedious day at work? Dreading a meeting?

We are passing through the ‘greenbelt’ that surrounds London; rolling fields of green, rippling in the breeze. Blue sky of that soft blue before the heat starts.

For some reason I think of Skimbleshanks the railway cat, and find myself glad that T S Eliot was alive in a gentler day when trains chugged along slowly. I can’t imagine anyone being inspired  by the rhythms of this train. Apart from the incessant white noise of the train on the tracks, the main variations are the ear popping thunder of a tunnel, or the slamming of doors as we pass another train.

Thus begins my first day in London. I think I can begin to understand London a little better. It is a whole world in a city. Everything is there in its ‘self-importance’. I keep remembering Andy Murray’s victory yesterday was a British victory and a scottish one. Definitely not English. But why do we in Scotland get so rattled by the south-east’s failure to understand that Scotland is different? Do we really in turn understand how different London is too?

And suddenly the brakes of the train squeal in anticipation, and we arrive at Finsbury Park. I join the others, facing east; they clearly know which way to turn.

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What does it mean to be hospitable?

I used to live and work in a Christian community, and the hospitality department was forever making beds, making cookies, making birthday cakes, making welcome cards, in order to make people feel welcome. I could never do that. I would put on even more weight than I have already! I am not creative when it comes to card making, and I struggle with putting duvet covers on duvets and folding fitted sheets carefully. If that is hospitality I don’t stand a chance.

However, those activities were only done in order to make people feel welcome. (But you can’t make anyone feel anything, I hear you cry). Perhaps not, but you can offer someone the opportunity to feel something, and trust that in their own time they will allow the meaning of your actions to filter past defences and weariness. One of my favourite quotes comes from Henri Nouwen:

Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

I think counselling is like that. I think life is like that too. I hope that when others come into my home, whether for counselling, friendship, a meal, or just a cup of coffee, I don’t rush around trying uber hard to do things for them. I would like the space to be calming, welcoming, relaxed, inviting, so that we can meet at a deeper level than might appear. Whether we talk, or just sit together, I want to hear both what my friend is saying and not saying, and I want them to hear what I am saying, and what I am not saying. And whether I say it or not, I want my friend to feel that however they are today is ok, and won’t define them in my mind. It’s just how it is just now.

What an idealist I am! But if I can get half way to my goal then we are both more human as a result.

What about you? How has hospitality been shown to you? How do you show hospitality to others? And how are you more human as a result?


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How close is close?

I have been journaling about intimacy today. What is intimacy? When do I experience intimacy? When don’t I? What makes me describe relationships as intimate?

It has also made me think about the relationship between counsellor and client. Is that relationship intimate?

It certainly ticks some of the boxes I journaled about, in terms of what makes relationships intimate. Very personal information is being shared. Two people are connecting at what has sometimes been described as ’emotional depth’. Trust is present, as is risk-taking.  Time has been set aside, with no distractions, for two people to work quite hard and understanding one of them. But is it intimacy?

I guess the easy answer is a qualified yes. Necessarily the sharing of information is somewhat one-sided. The counsellor doesn’t usually share the details of their life’s journey in the same way that the client does. Physical touch is usually not used. Nevertheless, more than one client has said to me ‘I feel like I really know you, Jo’ when all I have done is listen and ask the occasional question. The sharing of the space, the being together, the silence of present feelings has created a strong connection.

As a counsellor I feel moved by a glimpse into the other’s world. I feel the privilege of the trust placed in me. I feel the grief, the pain, the frustration of stuckness. And yet surely intimacy, even non-physical intimacy, is more than this? What is intimacy?

It is knowing and being known.
It is not wasting energy on trying to convince the other, because they know and don’t mind.
It is letting the other see whatever they do see, and not hiding.
It is feeling afraid and yet knowing safety.
It is seeing yourself for real, warts and all.
It is both hell and yet heaven.



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Talk about talking


That is one of the things I do for a living. I am a counsellor. I have spent many hundreds of hours listening to individuals, to groups. I have also spent hours being listened to. For me, listening that attentively to someone is like offering them hospitality. I hope that they can begin to feel accepted, welcomed, and even begin to relax and let go of some tension. If I can do this successfully then the person to whom I am listening can begin to think about what is troubling them without wasting energy on trying to make a good impression, or trying to hold it all together.

So why did I call this blog Talk about talking? Shouldn’t it be Talk about listening?

What I really want to think about here is the process of talking from a client’s perspective, whether I am the counsellor or indeed the client. However I am not going to divulge any secrets. I am not going to publish my journals. I am not going to break any confidences.

I think the process of counselling is sometimes poorly understood and I would love to know what you think. What do you think counselling is about? Would you ever go to talk to a counsellor? Do you know any counsellors? (Well you probably know me or you would be unlikely to be reading this). What do you think counsellors do?

Please leave comments and thoughts; I promise I will respond.


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