When we meet new people, it is not long before the usual questions are asked, “Where do you live? Marriage? Children?” and yes the old faithful “What do you for a living?”

I’m a Counsellor.

Out of all the jobs I’ve done, including in Child Protection, this is the one label that attracts the most attention. Reactions range from an eyebrow-raised kind of interest -the preconceptions of what I was, dissolving into something else, to complete horror “is she analysing me?” Mostly it’s with a kind of confused respect that I could (or would choose to) sit in front of distressed people, hour after hour, listening to them for a living.

I was once told by someone that they had been warned off therapy because therapists got in your face and made you cry. Another person made me smile when they told me that they would never need to go to counselling, because it was only for people who had things like Schizophrenia or Bipolar; as though you needed a certified diagnosis from a psychiatrist to quantify for therapeutic intervention. Whilst I do think as a society we are evolving towards a more open approach towards therapy and its benefits, I still think there is a fear about what we actually ‘do’ in that space and who exactly it is for.

We are relational beings, dependent on each other to make our way in the world, to survive. So, really, is it no surprise that when we are frightened, or lost, or hurt, we would want to turn to another. Yet our dependence on others leaves us extremely vulnerable; we are born into relationship and how we define ourselves is dominantly through our relationships with others. Interactions with others can be healing and reparative, yet people can also hurt and damage us the most, especially when they are meant to love us. Human connection comes with the risk of vulnerability; it’s what connects us but can it leave us open to an array of unknowns. For those that have been let down, when the trust and hope has been broken, to the one who has learned to be the ‘coper’, the prospect of having to go to another human being for support may seem unfathomable. Maybe this is the mystery around counselling: if I admit to myself that this is something I need, what does that mean about me, what will others think about me and what does that leave me open to?

We are so often defined by how others interpret what we do or don’t do as a living; a picture is painted of the person they think we must be. Questions are posed about where this puts you on the status ranks, how much power they assign to this job, and how much money you earn. “Ismene” and “Counsellor” often get merged; people assume that because I have that title I must be:

  • An Expert
  • Warm and fluffy
  • Happy all the time
  • A little bit strange
  • Able to solve all their problems.

In reality becoming a counsellor is far more subtle. It’s not always easy to separate “Counsellor” with “Ismene”. The training, alongside the compulsory personal therapy you must go to through in order to become qualified, doesn’t just hone your skills and make you more effective, it changes you as a person. It opens part of you that can’t be shut down just because the course has ended or the session has stopped.

I didn’t set out to be a Counsellor. It took me working in statutory services, three national charities and a year of counselling training to realise, that yes, this is what I was meant to be doing.

Over those three years there were a lot of moments were I just couldn’t imagine how I would be able to summon the energy to write one more word on my i.s.s.u.e.s and the theory that supported it, attend another p.e.r.s.o.n.a.l d.e.v.e.l.o.p.m.e.n.t group or tell one more person how I f.e.l.t. , yet I never once doubted that this was my career path.

When I sit across from my clients, it’s as though, my heartbreak and my joy, watching my mother live with and die from cancer, falling over and learning to pick myself back up, sitting in the counselling room as a client; it was all educating me for that moment. No person or any amount of books could have taught me what it feels like to be broken and how hard it is to just to carry on when your world has no light, or how frightening it is to be in the client’s chair for the first time. Sometimes we must know what it is to be without to know what we need to heal, grow, and flourish. I was learning empathy long before I read Carl Rogers.

When people ask me how I spend hour after hour listening to distressed people; it’s quite simple. I don’t just see ‘distressed people’. I see people like you and me. Life can feel difficult and the journey can feel long. There might be a day in the distant future where you need the space, time and focused attention of another person who’s there for you, week after week.

For me, I’m still humbled every day that people trust me enough to share their lives with me; I’m still touched when someone has an insight that makes their life lighter. There is nothing more rewarding than watching someone take that leap of faith to the life that they previously didn’t think they deserved.

So, for me, it was always going to be much more than a career, it’s a calling.


Ismene Cole

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