I can’t help but dwell on the themes of contemporary social justice tropes so common on social media. But, as Gerald Corey and colleagues put it: ‘Theories of counselling are based on worldviews, each with its values, biases, and assumptions of how best to bring about change in the therapeutic process.’ A review of ethics literature leads me to re-evaluate the origins of one’s morals and how they affect ethics. Emmanuel Kant warns us that benevolence may lead us astray and posits a precursor to Carl Roger’s unconditional positive regard, with his humanistic approach; that respect of the other person is a noble pursuit in itself, “never merely as a means“.
Like the knots in a tree, our fruit-bearing branches are a result of peaks and troughs of one’s ecology. Our development is fraught with periods of abundance interrupted by droughts of resources, role models, and morals. The tree may be lumber for a fire, or it may bear fruit for generations of those who require it. I use this metaphor to illustrate my view of the journey a person takes in their own life. I hope, through my knots, I can help people feel more like fruit-bearing trees than firewood. Certainly, I felt like firewood for the displays of virtue and narcissism of many people in positions of power in my life.
Lessons in childhood
I am fortunate to have experienced the pure unconditional positive regard only a devoted mother can provide. For the first 12 years of my life, I lived with my mother and enjoyed the benefits of this archetypal love. I believe this period saved me from the ravages to come; of blunt violence at the hands of my father, the deprivations of real poverty, being forcibly removed from my mother, forgotten in a boarding school and ostracised; even vilified by my extended family, and the traumatic experience of being present when my mother finally had a total schizophrenic break, all before I turned 13. By then adults’ failures had convinced me that no one needed me, that life only held suffering in store, that love was extremely rare, and adults were all selfish, brutal beasts guarding their domain with inhumane indifference.
Life had a few more hardships for me but in a conversation with my mother years later, when she was well enough to engage with me, I decided to live the life she could not. I also realised I had the capacity for love that she had given me. Two themes remained for me to build on; respect and power. Those who had power abused it and disrespected others through prescriptions to behaviour. Those who treated others with respect did not need power because they harness love. Learning these lessons during the birth of a new South Africa was symbiotic, the Apartheid state sought to prescribe race-based social stratification through fiat. Success in my own business was due to the respect-power-love paradigm. Although, it was a cobbled path I took.
The stranger in the mirror
I have the hindsight of a middle-aged man writing these statements now. The reality is I was a stranger to myself until I was about 28. During a particularly dramatic romantic break up I found myself staring into the mirror, tears smeared across my face, worn out from agonising over the injustice of life, while drunk on cheap wine, and I suddenly saw someone I had no respect for. There in the mirror was a man living one way while posturing a higher morality. My revenge on this unjust world was to ensure I behaved as its judge and executioner; setting standards no one could meet and condemn all who failed my grandiose dictum. Hereby proving what I believed about people all along; that they would disappoint me. I had not earned respect, I was not experiencing love, and I was wielding power as a child on the playground. I asked myself while looking into the mirror; who, and why would anyone love you? I believe these are the archetypal questions everyone asks themselves throughout their lives, either openly or covertly through self-destructive actions. But each person will present differently, and for that, we can’t have a prescribed formula.
We find that ethical codes cannot provide the blueprint we would all like for all challenges in counselling, they are ‘necessary, but not sufficient, for exercising ethical responsibility‘. Having a catalyst position of ethics becomes the culture to which you defer, an instinctive response rather than a ‘cookbook’ reaction Here, I use the construct catalyst as elements ‘used in small amounts relative to the reactants, that modifies and increases the rate of a reaction without being consumed in the process…that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences’. (American Heritage Dictionary, 2021). This may sound like an unnecessarily masculine approach, I concede to being a man advocating for new forms of prosocial masculinity within psychology
The role of power
The literature provides secure grounding for my catalytic ethical perspective. Amberless Green gives a recap of Ofer Zur (2009) where she states: ‘Coming from either the therapist or the client, the opening for difficulty to arise takes shape when power is abused or misunderstood although there may be an opportunity to rethink the system of power to use it constructively rather than succumb to its complexities.’
This beautifully summarises how I have approached the role of power in generating respect with the goal of harnessing love. Here, I use the word ‘power’ as the innate capacity for influence inherent in all of us, including the client. Green reminds us that a misunderstanding of power can sabotage the therapeutic relationship from the start.
I have seen this when acting as an employer. Power wielded carelessly seeds its own corruption, our role as counsellors comes with personal and social responsibilities as the mediators of emotions in our clients. Green further describes types of power, referring to the payment-for-services dynamic and the risk in transference of the parent archetype. I recognise I have an instinct to veer toward nurturing and advice, born of my lack of role models, my failure to save my mother, my history as an employer, and my status as a childfree middle-aged man. We should recognise that parents will often seek us out for advice anyway, and be prepared to respond ethically. Beyond our prescribed ethics codes, I believe the catalytic respect-power diode will help me default to a congruent therapeutic role.
Beyond prescribed ethics
Kate Harrison lays out the six core principles in counselling which are rooted in the Humanistic approach advocated by Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and Rollo May. There are two issues I see creeping into counselling ethics that make me wary of some approaches to counselling and their prescribed models of ethics. As Harrison states, the six core principles; autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice, fidelity, and veracity, aim to empower the client and reduce the ‘ill effects’ of power dynamics in their lives. However, she goes onto explain that the ‘therapist can be too focused on beneficence at the expense of recognising the autonomy of the client.’ This suggests that the therapist has already lost respect for the client by advancing social outcomes vicariously, seeing them as the artist sees a blank canvas. In philosophy, we find that adherence to codes may be insufficient, that assuming one’s good conscience is not enough because ‘consciences can be as perverted as anything else‘.
Further, we find that Marilyn Barnett questions the motivations of some therapists who naively seek ‘to help people’ as being reluctant to enter into the difficult ‘emotional storm’ which can be brought forth. The risk lies in the misguided altruist, using ethics that seek to neutralise power within the therapeutic forum, to exorcise their own ‘unquiet spirit’ at the expense of the client’s growth. The wounded healer should always aim to leave their demons out of the therapeutic relationship.
Instead, deep respect for the client allows us to modulate power between us with the outcome being the gradual and progressive gain of the client’s own internal power resources. This respects the dynamism theorised by Maslow in the client’s needs status, harnessing the libido of Jung to create the ‘healthy individualism’ of May. As opposed to first year, I now fall short of advocating for complete unconditional positive regard in the therapeutic relationship as advised by Rogers. I recognise the risks mentioned by Harrison for example; the silence allowed in Roger’s approach can destabilise the power dynamic. I believe the Mother archetype is capable of unconditional positive regard, but we know that progress requires the Father archetype to provide the distinction one requires to move forward.
As an employer, I would frequently be forced to resort to exercise coercive power to get someone to perform duties required within the scope of their job. I have always exercised this power cautiously because I have been on the receiving end of unchecked coercive tyrants and I know the deep resentment it can foment. Reading Zur and Green I relate to the dangers of this power within therapy. I will have to find ways of moderating my instincts to coerce people, I risk diverting clients into adopting signs of growth to assuage my coercive directives. However, power within the therapeutic relationship can be exercised to achieve goals beneficial to the wider society, especially the society the client lives in if utilised carefully and at the pace of the client.
My life experience tells me no good comes from wielding power over others, especially if it does not progress their goals in their ecology. I find a home for these principles in counselling psychology, but I also position myself to modulate, mediate and moderate power and its libidinal flow of emotions. I take the baton tentatively and turn to face the future knowing that you can never reduce humans to a fixed set of codes. The existential psychologist Rollo May has inspired me, in his parable: at the gates of heaven St. Peter scolds the behavioural psychologist: ‘You made man over into the image of your childhood erector set or Sunday school maxims, both equally horrendous.’
An earlier version of this article was published on Psychology Kitchen.
Vincent Deboni is a registered professional counsellor who is based in Sweden.