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Pagans & Counselling

Imagine the scenario: you've been having difficulties in your life and a friend suggests that you try counselling. After s/he explains that the sessions are confidential and are to help you to sort things out for yourself,   you're willing to give it a try. It may be that s/he has been for counselling before and found it helpful. Eventually you make the decision to find a counsellor to talk to but what do you take into account when deciding who to go to? Personal recommendation? A name out of a book?
Their approach? Does it matter if your counsellor is male or female? Young or old? Pagan or non-Pagan?

It is the last category that I would like to focus on in this article. Pete Jennings' article in Pagan Dawn  (Lammas 96) says that  'a trained counsellor does not need to be a Pagan to counsel a Pagan effectively'. No more than a counsellor would need to belong to any other particular group to be an effective counsellor since the emphasis, particularly in Person-centred counselling,  is on being able to empathise with the client, being able to enter their world. As Carl Rogers said: It means entering
the private perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it. .....It means temporarily living in the other's life, moving about in it delicately without making judgements. (Rogers A Way of Being 1980).

As a counselling client, I have also been wary of potential judgement from my counsellor/therapist and have censored sharing my beliefs, rituals and magickal workings. When I have taken risks and shared, it has often been with a hesitant voice, not at all the authoritative voice of the Priestess that others have heard. My 'internal oppressor' has certainly been at work
in two of my three therapeutic relationships. It is interesting to note that research findings suggest that it is less the theoretical approach of the counsellor that matters and more the quality of the relationship that counts.
My experience tends to disagree with this since 'my' Person-centred counsellor felt solidly supportive and accepting of all aspects of me and seemed to have some understanding of ritual.

As a Pagan who has spent the past eight years facilitating learning in counselling and counselling skills, as well as being a student counsellor in a college of further education, I have often been wary of sharing my beliefs with colleagues and students.

Fantasies of being sacked for my beliefs and practices and publicising my case in the national papers as a Pagan martyr vied with my paranoia over losing credibility and paying the mortgage. I often sat tight while the Satanic ritual child abuse scare stories abounded, apart from when colleagues spoke to me directly about it. At those times I would launch
into a tirade about the literature disseminated to social services departments which suggested, amongst other things, that velvet curtains were indicative of Satanic practices and pet cages, empty or full were sure signs that sacrifices had either happened or were going to occur. At the same time I wore my pentagram ring and was ready to discuss my beliefs with
anyone who showed interest.

It was not until I began studying for my MSc in Counselling (Supervision and Training) that I decided to 'come out' as a Pagan and focus my research on an area that would both be appropriate for the University requirements and (hopefully) be of benefit to the Pagan community. To this end I am looking for other Pagans to share their experiences of being a counselling
'client' and whether or not it mattered that your counsellor/therapist was Pagan or not. I have already had responses from counselling/therapy practitioners who are also Pagans/magickians (my first focus and request in Pagan Dawn, Imbolc 98). In answer to my question 'is there a need for a Pagan/magickal approach to counselling?' practitioners generally think it
less important that there should be a specific approach that takes into account the Pagan viewpoint. Somewhere along the line, the views of clients and otherPagans new to counselling deserve to be heard. Do other Pagans feel wary of bringing post-initiation crises, psychic or paranormal concerns to their non-Pagan counsellor/therapist? Do others think they may
be judged, misunderstood or considered to be on the edge of sanity? Is there a need to educate your counsellor/therapist before being understood? Does it matter?

I think it does matter. If it's only me that thinks this, then it's my issue. If others share my perception I'm offering an opportunity to be heard. How much others suffer from an 'internal oppressor' or censor and how much it stems from external experience (which are obviously subject to interpretation) I don't know. My feeling is that the work of the Pagan Federation media liaison officer and team has made a substantial difference to non-Pagan's views of us.

On the tide of changing perceptions, writing as a trainer/educator, my solutions tend towards the need for prejudice and misinformation about Pagans/magickians to be addressed on training courses perhaps along with other specific (but not necessarily homogeneous!) groups eg gays, cross-cultural, etc. Perhaps a Pagan-friendly (see Pete Jennings) element
to training could be introduced similar to the 'gay-affirmative counselling suggested by the authors of Pink Therapy (ed Davis and Neal 1996).

It is interesting to note that the UK Pagans on-line frequently asked questions states ' Be careful when discussing whether non-list members are pagan or not.Yes, it's fun to speculate, but some list members feel there are some ethical problems with this. It's rather like the "outing" debate in the gay community (and out of it).  It may be appropriate to apply the concept of
coming out to Paganism: Davis and Neal outline the Coleman model which describes many of the factors seen in individuals coming out. Coleman identifies five stages which are not necessarily sequential: pre-coming out, coming out,exploration, first relationships (Pagan friendships?) and identity integration. Although this is not the main focus of my research, I
think there is some mileage in exploring the potential parallels in Pagan-friendly counselling.

So, to return to the original scenario: you've decided to go and see a counsellor, you recognise that the relationship is all-important and that your counsellor doesn't have to be Pagan. S/he sounds warm and friendly on
the phone and you've made an arrangement to meet. As the door is opened you notice that your counsellor is wearing a cross. What goes through your mind? Does it really made a difference? Whose prejudice exists now? As the
predominant religion in this country is Christianity, is it a case of the dominant group holding the power?

If any of this has resonated with you and your experiences, please contact me so that your voice can be heard. It'd help if you would focus on:
a) does it matter if my counsellor/therapist is Pagan/non-Pagan?
b) specific experiences to illustrate your points
c) training/supervision issues Pagan counselling trainees have encountered
d) anything else you want to say

 

  • I can be contacted either at the University of Bristol,
    Department for Continuing Education,
    8-10 Berkley Square,
    Clifton,
    Bristol.
  • or on email: es@daath.demon.co.uk
  •  

    This article was first published in Gates of Annwn magazine, August 1998