Person Centred Therapy and Trauma: A personal View


A PERSONAL VIEW  By Christopher Murray


I am a person centred, humanistic, psychodynamic, counsellor, psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer, 27 years in practice. I call on a range of approaches in my practice. I can talk Psychodynamic, I can talk Transactional Analysis, I can talk Existentialism, I can talk Gestalt, I can talk Jungian Creative Therapy, I can talk the Person Centred Approach, I can talk Solution Focused Brief Therapy, (a bit). I can talk trauma, depression, sexual abuse, suicide, relationships, psychiatric illness, neurosis, psychosis, narcissism, projection, introjection, attachment, dissociation, free association. Boy can I talk the talk. But my experience of working with trauma in Northern Ireland has often silenced me.


This is not a piece aimed at contradicting existing research, nor is it claiming the efficacy of any approach. It is not research in the traditional sense. It is research from a phenomenological perspective, from the perspective of my experience. That is my validity


I wrote this piece initially for myself following a day of trauma counselling. But in the writing of it I am valuing the importance of the existential questions that underpin the Person Centred Approach, and the repeated asking of those questions of existence in trauma counselling. There are pieces of research that will demonstrate contraindications to the use of the Person Centred Approach with trauma victims. I wanted to share my experiences of the work not as an answer to ‘how to do trauma work.’ I do not believe that it is possible to have a definitive type of therapy for each type of condition. I believe that the relationship between the therapist and the client to be the most significant part of any answer to effectiveness. I believe that the therapist as a person is just as important as the type of theory that they utilise. I believe this because it is my experience. I trust in the process of being with myself and the other person in therapy. I experience the other in the relationship reporting repeatedly that they value being accepted as they are and that although they would like me to have a magic wand, that it would be most unhelpful.




I wish to offer some of my thoughts and experiences working with trauma in Northern Ireland. It comes from a need in me to share experiences in a community where sharing is a rare commodity. I also wanted to say something about what it is like being a counsellor in this community where I feel I am in a privileged position in being able to witness people’s stories. As part of a community of counsellors I witness and carry much of what troubles individuals in Northern Ireland, from all communities, ex-paramilitaries and security forces.



I begin with the indominability of the human condition in particular and that of organisms in general. Humans are after all complex organisms, whose motivation is to survive and continue the species. For millennia humans have been surviving the most atrocious conditions from early life, through ice ages, meteors, reversals of magnetic fields, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, to name but a few natural catastrophes. The remainder of atrocious conditions are all created by us and are too numerous to mention. Our capacity to wreck havoc on each other knows no bounds. War, torture, rape, murder, mutilation, child abuse and neglect, to mention but a few, all of which occur on an historical and global scale.


And yet life in this planet has such an amazing capacity to survive, develop, in the face of the greatest odds. We make cinema, create great works of art and literature in order to celebrate heroic acts of courage and daring do. It almost seems that we are at our best when defending ourselves against an enemy. It was seen as a curiosity that the Second World War brought communities together, and there is a yearning from older members of the community to return to those days.


All organisms seem to be invested with this never say die attitude. After the Mount St. Helena eruption in America, scientists were incredulous at the speed, rate and strength of the natural growth that returned. Scientists speculate and produce some evidence for a catastrophic meteor crash in the golf of Mexico several million years ago. Many plants and animal species were wiped out, and yet life returned and proliferated. Life has an immense ability to hang on and flourish, even when it seems that all hope has gone. Pandora knew not to open the box, but human enquiry being what it is, she could not resist the temptation. Is it not significant that hope remained in spite of pestilence, war and evil? On many occasions I have listened to clients and supervisees describe the greatest cruelty perpetrated against babies, children and adults. And yet there are as many occasions when those same people also describe their experience of the tiniest candle light flickering in the darkest corner of their being, waiting to be rekindled. In my experience there is a yearning in individuals traumatised by the acts of others for an unconditional relationship with a trustworthy individual. Something that their experience of trauma has removed.



I have been involved in counselling and psychotherapy for over 25 years and have worked with trauma for 17 years. Until 1999 I worked in England, in mental health social work and private practice. In late 1999 I returned to live and work in Northern Ireland, having left in 1969. On my return I discovered that many attitudes remained as intransigent as the day I left. However, I was different, and I began to work with so called ‘victims’ of the so-called ‘troubles.’ I dislike the epithet ‘troubles’. It is so minimising of people’s experiences. I was shocked at the level of trauma that I heard from ordinary folk, through intimidation, murder, fear, multiple loss, beatings, torture, kidnap, and all of this from all sides of the political and religious community. Here were ordinary people surviving and trying to carry on as normal as possible, carrying the impossible. Although I knew intellectually that the media representation contained a lot of gloss, I hadn’t realised how much. I experienced a stench of corruption, a purulent and rotting flesh of humanity, a fear so deep it was normalised. I felt that I had walked into some sort of open concentration camp that mirrored the worst atrocities anywhere in the world. A programme of ethnic cleansing was in full swing, paramilitary gangs policed their own communities meting out fierce punishments. The police were powerless and not trusted by either community, law and order was in disarray. Ordinary people were being shot, internal Paramilitary feuds raged, pipe bombs were a regular occurrence. Yet the politicians continued their rhetoric. The police that I listened to had a horrendous tale to tell. But like the American G.I.’s returning from Vietnam to a cold reception from fellow Americans, so the police in Northern Ireland are vilified. Yet they are human too, and have experienced a multitude of horrors that can only be imagined. They do not even have the support and sympathy of the communities they are trying to protect.




I thought about the sigh of relief in the country when the Good Friday agreement was signed. I have watched the ordinary people seduced by the thought and promise of peace for the first time in thirty years, being betrayed by power hungry politicians with no regard for the safety and dignity of the citizen of this country. I saw that thirty years of intimidation and brutality had produced signs of trauma in a whole country. Derealisation, startle, dissociation, disempowerment.




When I sit with people who have been traumatised, (from the Greek to pierce the skin), I am silent, I am speechless, I am aghast, I am there with them in the middle of a petrol driven fire knowing they are about to die; imagining how a loved one had been shot in the back, did they know it was coming? Did they feel anything? I am there to witness the fourth, sixth, seventh or eighth murder or maiming from within one family. Fractured bones, plated skulls, empty wombs, dislocated families and communities. The once peaceful, plentiful, trustful life is gone forever. Belief, spirit, soul, mind and body broken. Why? WHy? WHY?




I have read a lot about trauma, the research into what helps, what doesn’t help. There are ways to test an individual for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was stumped when someone asked me if there was a test to tell when it was over and you were no longer Post Traumatic Stress Disordered. What helps me is a good strong pair of arms on the chair that I can hold on to as I listen to horror upon horror, the result of what the human race is capable of, and of the compassion of the traumatised, resisting taking up arms in the name of justice, desperate for peace and humanity.





Apparently we are 95% similar to each other according to recent genetic research. The 5% of difference refers to height, gender, hair and eye colour, skin colour. Underneath those peripherals we are the same. And yet those smallest of differences are at the very core of conflict. We are the same and capable of the same deeds of the Good Samaritan and the most wicked deeds ever committed. When we vilify Sadaam Hussein, Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Genghis Khan, we are vilifying our own shadow. It is said of serial killers and child murderers that they must be insane, because no normal person would be capable of such deeds. What type of monster is capable of these unspeakable deeds? The answer is simple, the human monster. One of our own. I sit with that for a moment. I sit opposite someone who has been terrorised and hear

him or her talk about revenge. Not bloody, eye for an eye, revenge. Simply that the other says that they would like the culprits to be made to experience some degree of their terror. But not to the extent that it would harm them. My god I think, and why not, they deserve what you experienced and more.






I watch the disbelief slowly appear on the faces of those telling, and I am aware of my own. I don’t even bother to search for a theoretical context for my own experience, never mind the other person’s. The roller coaster is off and running and I am holding on, white knuckled, sick in the pit of my stomach. Tears well up in me, anger grips my gut, I clamp my jaws to silence my outrage, I am aware of staring, just staring. I feel some relief as I imagine the worst of the story is over, only to be pinned back by the next horror. They were gently easing me in through the overture, building up to a crescendo of Mahler like proportions.




I sit in awe at the capacity of human beings to inflict such brutality on fellow human beings. But the greatest awe is reserved for those fellow humans, classified as ‘Victims of the Troubles.’ How I hate that phrase. Who is ‘troubled’ by murder, cold-blooded, thoughtless murder, sickening maiming, crippling, and a legacy of sweating, repeating nightmares? Troubled. We call the terror in the Twin Towers in New York last September, ‘911’. Turn horror into an insignificant word or number and we can all cope. Those Victims are Heroes, they are 21stCentury Odysseus or Jason, they are Herculean in strength, they are heroes. They hold the pillars of the world on their shoulders and hold the hope for all of us. They feel that the Gods have deserted them, and yet each seems to have gifts that have carried and are carrying them through their ordeals. And I, a mere mortal, have some place in this journey.




I sit humbly before heroes who have been through, are in the labyrinth, waiting for the centaur to charge again. Somewhere is hope and a search for answers. I notice that I am being watched, as if I too might run from the chaotic brutality. I notice a sense that the other person is conscious of how much more they can tell me, or is judging how much more I can take. Perhaps they are wondering if I have a ball of string with me, so that if they survive I can show them the way out of the labyrinth. They are calm until the fall into a cinematic flashback, and are back there to the very second in time it happened. I throw a string so they can find their way back. My string is a slight shift in the chair, a gentle cough, just enough to say, ‘I’m still here.’ Time stands still as I am led through, shown in greater and greater detail the sickening horrors, until I am there in the place with them. I do not know if my images are accurate and it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that the other knows that I am still there. In the room is another who is sharing the same air, the same stench, and the same horrors.




I can’t explain, but somehow I know that something will make a difference. I do not know what, when or how. I only know that it will. It may not be with myself. It may not be this week or in the next ten years, and it may be just before their death, something will make a difference. My belief is that being able to sit in the room as myself is sufficient. That I can listen and not be blown away by what is to come. That what I will hear will not destroy me, and that I do have a ball of string that I secured somewhere before entering the labyrinth, and that I can find the way out. I am also aware of the other person watching me closely in order to see if I can manage and survive. My ability to meet the challenge will determine how much I hear of the other person’s account.




I search for a way of ending, of interrupting the horror. There is a look of relief, not only that it is over for today, but also because I have kept to the agreement about time. I have not been consumed, eaten alive, by the story. We chat about generalities for a few moments, both fully aware that we are ending and that a chat will enable the other person, as well as myself to disconnect, until the next time.




I leave in a trance. I am aware that a relationship has begun. I am aware of the   feeling of chaos, of a lack of sense. What is it all about? Some happenings in this life make no sense to me. I could go back to the textbook in order to understand the mysterious, but I am too far into the experience for rational thinking to be of any assistance. I am afraid that there is little comfort in what I have just experienced in the theory books. I do not understand the human condition; I am only able to experience myself in the present, by myself and with others. That is my only true and real understanding. It is only now that I am beginning to understand the half of what Carl Rogers described in his life. I am only beginning to grasp the true meaning of being and being Person Centred.


Christopher Murray, in Private Practice, Northern Ireland


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