By Susan M Flint – retired counsellor & supervisor of counsellors, and former member of BACP & ACC Accredited
I learnt the value of a peer group when in training to be a Person-Centred Counsellor. ‘Check in’ and ‘Check out’ times were new experiences that made me clam up. I had nothing to say, or if I had my heart would pound faster and faster and I’d tell myself to speak after the next person had finished speaking but often time ran out and I didn’t participate. Gradually, I told myself if I didn’t speak first I would miss my chance so tested this theory out and overcame my irrational fear of being ridiculed, judged or sounding silly. I learnt that my contribution was as valid as anyone else; it encouraged me to be bolder and boosted my self-confidence.
This experience enabled me to be braver outside of the counselling training setting. I was a member of committees where I let other people make decisions without expressing my thoughts or ideas. I began to take with me to the meetings a circular piece of paper with the letters S.U.A.M. written on– a reminder to myself to ‘Speak Up At Meetings’. It was some time before I didn’t need that reminder anymore.
As uncomfortable as those ‘check in’ times were, when silence fell in the room, I very much missed these sessions after I had qualified and went my own way. Sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have until it is no longer there. I look back at that time now with great respect for the Tutors who ‘held us’ and for my fellow students who accepted me as I am.
Over a 25 year period, along with branching out into private practice, I worked for several voluntary agencies in a counselling capacity, most of which offered peer supervision. A leader with great skills to apportion adequate time and compassion to all participants was vital. I was still learning the art of grabbing the space available to me and occasionally, if cut short through the insensitivity of peers, I would feel disappointed and unable to address this in the moment, leading to another obstacle to overcome in personal development.
Other counsellors have shared with me how they found lots of mutual support:
“I find the group dynamics both fascinating and complex. Over time peers get to know each other well and can be open about their lives, their feelings, their process – sometimes laughing, often remembering and corporately aging together. The peer support can develop into a caring community and this can only stem from knowing each other well.” H.G.
“I found it immensely valuable hearing people’s experiences in the counselling world and the discussions around them. Every bit of (peer) supervision is important and counts towards the overall total.” A.C.
“During my career as a self-employed counsellor, life could be quite isolated at times – connecting with peers was a vital ingredient of support for my work. It helped me feel less isolated and a place to sound out what may be happening in my world that I needed some support in. This was not always work related but perhaps my own world was impacting on work-life. Having a space to talk and reflect with other counsellors was invaluable. It was a level playing field where everyone was able to bring their contribution, giving food for thought and all of us the ability to look at issues from other perspectives. Being able to sound things out or check out how other counsellors feel about certain aspects of the therapeutic environment was a great help for me.” C.D.
During my years of private practice I had 1-1 supervision and so again I was missing the added dimension of peer support. When one of the voluntary organizations I engaged with closed down four counsellors agreed to meet regularly for peer support for our private practices. I can’t express how rewarding this experience has been and continues to be even though one counsellor moved away and three of us meet less regularly now our careers in this field have ended, but nevertheless its value is so very special. Not only did this group share any difficulties and joys with our clients in an agreed confidential setting but embraced our whole selves and whatever was going on for us. I think we have covered managing the menopause whilst working, illnesses and bereavements whilst working, relationships, money matters and working towards ending our counselling careers.
So what is it that makes peer support so special? For me it has been ‘being truly heard’ which in turn makes me feel valued and boosts my self-esteem. Peers who become friends have more listening capacity than non-counsellor friends; peers don’t try to ‘fix’ you, are able to know you at a level others don’t, and like/love you in a way that allows you to be who you are without expectation or supposition.
Once a counsellor, always a counsellor I hope to extend my experience by sharing all that I have been and am. I now offer ‘Being Well’ insights to a local group alongside an ex-student counsellor. She has a Private Practice and together we work voluntary in this way, so she and I have planning and sharing times too.
Other therapists I know have found peer group frustrating, annoying, unhelpful etc. I am not sure if this is due to personality types clashing badly, leaders not handling it well or participants not being open to the experience and value. However, I hope I have conveyed something of the special-ness of peer groups/peer support and that if you haven’t had or got a good support group, that you will form one or join one to suit your needs.
©Susan M Flint