Tag Archives: counsellors in training

How Does That Happen?

On a visit to St. Stephen’s Basilica Cathedral in Budapest, I found myself pondering some large questions: Why do we still go to war? Why do men abuse women and children?  As I stood looking at the beauty in that place, I found an answer that made sense to me.

Budapest Skyline

What came to me was perhaps obvious: that just as day and night, feast and famine, hot and cold are on a continuum, so are our capacities as human beings to be free to choose to be creative and/or destructive .  In that cathedral, created with such passion, there were exquisite carvings and paintings depicting both beauty and images of soldiers, swords and other instruments of war.  We are capable of every extreme of feeling, together with the imagination and ability to act upon it or not. The more power, strength and potency that we gain as human beings, some people will act with grace, generosity and creativity and others will act in a way that is mean, corrupt and destructive. Realistically, we all have some of both and certainly as I get older these two extremes seem less clear.  Sometimes we may think we are being honorable but can be driven by ego and sometimes we may make real mistakes that teach us and aid us to jump forward on our journey towards enlightenment. However, we are certainly helped on our way if we can temper our power, strength and potency with love, humility and wisdom which is easier to do if we have had an experience of ‘plenty’ and a loving family life. This poem grew out of these questions.

What It Begins With:

It begins with the welcome given to a baby;

the nurturing given to a child;

that spirit of love held in a family;

the friendship bonding a community;

a feeling of belonging to a country;

having a connection to the World.

There needs to be enough

for that baby and this world

to grow straight.

Then again, I have been humbled by the clients I have worked with who experience extreme deprivation and abuse and yet still choose to become creative, wise, loving, generous human beings, full of grace. How does that happen?



Pic du Carlit
Pic du Carlit

Counselling is a creative process and as each of us are the real experts on ourselves, anything that enables us to express ourselves in that process is fundamental to it. Self expression leads us to self awareness and that frees us to realise that we can continue as before or choose to do things differently.

I have never heard the story of a client that didn’t make sense to me once they explained their personal and family history. As we hear ourselves telling our story, and realise how we got to this place, it is then possible to explore what other choices we could be making. There are some basic needs that enable this process to work well:

  • A safe, calm, comfortable and confidential space, with an agreed confidentiality and time boundary managed by an ethical and professionally qualified and supervised counsellor.
  • We all need a counsellor who is encouraging and prepared to witness and listen to our story, in terms of how it is now and how it got to be like this for us.
  • Acceptance and understanding. (The word in Cherokee for Love is the same word for understanding – in the book ‘Little Tree’ by Forest Carter).
  • So many of us as clients come into counselling believing that there is something ‘wrong’ with us, because we have a high expectation of ourselves. It is vital to normalise that we all go through bad experiences, make mistakes, feel unable to cope sometimes. It is vital to normalise this and value the choices we may make as children to survive, which may not continue to suit us as we mature into adulthood. A common phrase I have found myself using a lot is: “Welcome to the rest of the human race”. There is a sense of all of us being in this place of grappling with what is and doing the best we can.

‘You did what you knew how to do, and when you

knew better, you did better.’

Maya Angelou

  • Something deeper – Compassion. It is hard to work with people and not feel compassion for that courage and indomitable spirit that moves us through some of our toughest times.
  • Specific counselling tools that stimulate self-expression: writing, play, role play, art, meditation, visualisation, a walk in a labyrinth (see post under Labyrinths) both in the counselling room and for homework, depending on what might interest and inspire us.
  • Encouragement for us, as clients, to think, imagine, visualise, dream how our lives can be and what we may want to do differently.

When is comes to empowering us to make different choices, I have used a few exercises which seem simple but can be effective in enabling us to make new choices.

  • It can be valuable for us to notice how we make choices about simple things. For example, if we go into a cafe, how do we choose if we want food or drink; something savoury or sweet; something hot or cold. Do we habitually choose the same thing? Do we go along with what other people want? Do we really ask ourselves what we want to have today, that might be exploratory and different? What happens if we sit in a different seat or walk a different way than is our normal habit?
  • It can be interesting for us to take time out to try on clothes in a charity shop but make an effort to see what we look like in a different styles, colours, shapes than we would usually do…something out of our comfort zone and notice how that feels. What might we learn about ourselves?
  • Also, it can be useful to spend a half day or a day on our own in an unknown city or town and discover what we might like to do that perhaps we don’t normally allow ourselves to do – that relationship with ourselves that is so important to explore.
A Conversation
A Conversation


This is a hand out for the Group on Taking Our Space  but could be used as a handout or as a point of discussion with any client in individual counselling. It can help us to reach our goals and ideals by the use of visualization. It can help us to name our intentions to ourselves as well as  ‘putting out an intention’ into the larger world.  List your ideal goals in each of these main life areas below:

Clouds on Amherst Island

What would you like to be doing in two years time?







What would you like to be doing in seven years time?







Choose one of these, close your eyes and visualise yourself being in this position in every minute detail.  Have fun with it. If you picture yourself in a room, describe the room in detail to yourself: colours, shapes, scent.  Imagine the people around you in detail.  Make this visualization come alive for you.  You could do this for each of your goals.  Then with a friend or with your counsellor you could discuss what steps you need to make to reach these goals. Consider the small changes that you could make which could put you further forward on the path that you choose to be on.

Remember that whenever we choose to move forward positively in one area of our life it has positive affect on other aspects of our life.





This wonderful poem by John O’Donohue is inspiring for any of us looking to start something new,a good one to share with clients:

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the wages of turmoil rise and relent;
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plentitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening,
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure,
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Hold nothing back,learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

John O’Donohue


In 1977, I began my counselling training with the, then Marriage Guidance Council, now Relate.  It was a very thorough training, but there was one section I thought I had failed.  It was a session, entitled, ‘Sexually Speaking’.  Our group sat in a silent circle with no idea what to expect.  The tutor sat down, introduced herself to us and asked me to begin by talking for 5 minutes on Male Arousal.  My mind went instantly blank. My dry mouth attempted to mutter a few inane comments about things that might achieve an erection for a man. Then, I froze into four and a half minutes of silence.  As we went around the circle, most people seemed to manage to find something to say about different sexual topics, men being asked about what happens for women and women being asked about what happens for men. I was convinced I would be failed on this section of the course.  Near the end, someone was asked to speak about Impotence. After their allotted 5 minutes, I found my voice, saying, “I know exactly how that feels, because my fear of performance at the start, rendered me totally impotent”.  This seemed to be enough to redeem my poor efforts earlier and I came to appreciate these sessions enormously throughout the three years of my training.


I believe it was important for us as counsellors to get used to hearing ourselves and others speak about all aspects of sex in a mixed group. We learnt a lot. I decided to create something similar, specifically for clients who acknowledged that they had never felt particularly comfortable about their sexuality and sexual relationships. It was such a valuable tool, especially for younger clients but many of us can feel inhibited about this, at any age!

This was not something I would do early on in the counselling until I assessed that it would be useful and that there was a high degree of trust in the client counsellor relationship.  I would explain what would be involved and if the client wanted to go ahead, we would put aside a whole session to focus on sexuality.  I don’t think there was anyone who approached it without some anxiety but rarely did anyone drop out.

I would begin by asking the client to tell me about how they learnt about sex, who from and what they had understood and felt about it.  I checked out if there were any questions they still wanted to ask, anything they felt unsure about or wanted to discuss. We would move on to how they had felt about the relationships between their parents, other family members, what information and messages they had taken on board about sex, love, relationships, marriage, separation and divorce.  The discussion would then focus on their own developing history, sexually, physically and emotionally, including their values. This would lead into what they wanted out of a relationship in the present; what might be holding them back; what their anxieties might be and most important of all what their strengths were.

I would never know how the session would develop and this would be led by what the client disclosed and discussed.  There were some times we would get into a discussion of flirting,  leading to a homework of watching how other people do it, for clients who were afraid to even look at people they were attracted to; other times it led to clients going shopping for clothes that felt more ‘sexy’ – one moving occasion was when an older client decided to buy some sexy underwear to express their sexuality to themselves, albeit that they had chosen a way of life that included celibacy; one young man asked what was meant by ‘the Change’, he’d heard his mother talk about it but hadn’t felt able to ask what it meant; another session resulted in a female client disclosing and accepting their erotic fantasies, about which they had been carrying an enormous amount of guilt –  they ended up buying and enjoying Nancy Friday’s book, ‘My Secret Garden’, a book reissued several times since then. There were other sessions when clients talked about sexual abuse or even a sexual attack that they had never previously spoken about to anyone.

What felt important about these sessions were two things.  The first was that this provided a space and permission to speak about an area about which some people feel inhibited. The second thing was that I noticed how clients became more confident and more comfortable from just using words about their sexuality, about every aspect of their body and about sex generally. I noticed how both their own use of sexual words and hearing me use the same language back to them gave permission and built an increased acceptance of sex as a natural part of life. I worked with clients from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds and for some of these clients, such sessions gave them an opportunity to talk about how they were affected by differences in sexual behaviour and sexual values living here in the UK.

Even in 2014, sex can be a daunting subject to talk about and I found these sessions helpful in my own training and most especially in my counselling. It was particularly helpful working with a young client group of university students who are not always as confident or informed sexually as we might assume.





Available now from www.karnacbooks.com, postage free worldwide

 ‘This rich, practical, and potentially transforming book provides the lay reader, as well as the counsellor, psychotherapist, and student of counselling, with a clear, practical guide to insightful dialogue, and the effective use of innovative techniques in counselling. Devising relevant case stories from her extensive experience in this field, Maggie Yaxley Smith offers us a fluent, personable, and compassionate approach to the struggles, vulnerabilities and previously undiscovered potential and strength of human nature.  This creative, illuminating, intimate, and authentic account makes an immensely significant contribution to personal growth, helping us to break from old patterns that limit us and allowing us to realise our potential and live life more fully.’           Brian Graham, clinical supervisor, counsellor, therapist and international educator.

‘This is a beautifully written and multi-layered insight into the counsellor/client relationship. With each in-depth case study, the author reflects on the emotional and psychological subtleties and complexities that clients bring into the counselling room. Her honesty, warmth, sensitivity, and skill with each client shines through on every page as she invites you to share in each person’s internal struggles, breakthroughs, and ‘a-ha’ moments as they journey from past hurts to self discovery.  This is an engaging and positive book.  Whether you are a seasoned therapist, someone thinking about having counselling, or simply curious about what the counselling experience is like, then this book is for you.’        Anjula Mutanda, relationship psychologist, presenter and author.

Lan-li returns to the painfully self-destructive behaviour of Anorexia that nearly killed her at 15. In order to survive in her world, she is allowing herself to be dominated by what she believes others want from her.

Shirley and David’s body language in the waiting room shows a marriage destined to become ink on a divorce petition. They have stopped listening to each other and are filled with a bitterness and frustration ‘iced’ with a veneer of being ‘right’.

Michael is 25 and is burying himself in a career as a lawyer, resigned to becoming his father.  He has nightmares of being buried alive and has dark thoughts of killing himself when driving on motorways.

Karen, a successful investment banker, is living in a crazy world of cocaine addiction which mirrors the craziness within the abusive family that she grew up in.

These characters are entirely fictitious characters but as their counselling unfolds, they grow into themselves in a very real way.  There is something of all of us in these clients who, once they find the ability to see their own strengths can create a more positive way forward in their lives.  I’ve worked with many clients, over 35 years, who’ve said, ‘I wish I’d come for counselling sooner.’ It is hoped that this book may encourage people who would benefit from some counselling to do just that.

Finding Love in the Looking Glass: A Book of Counselling Case Stories,

ISBN: 978-1-7822012-4-3

by Maggie Yaxley Smith MA MBACP (Accred.) Senior Practitioner. BACP reg.



Anjula Mutanda, (2013).  How to do Relationships: A step-by-step guide to nurturing your relationship and making love last, Vermilion, London.

 ‘When relationships are going well we feel good about ourselves, connected and supported, but when things are going badly we can feel dissatisfied, anxious and sometimes very lonely.  Clearly, feeling loved is very important to us.(page 1).

This book is full of valuable information and tips about relationships; it is clearly written and easy to understand; it is a book that I wanted to read from cover to cover but it is also something I could imagine keeping and dipping into at specific times when it would prove helpful again and again. It is refreshingly full of common sense and wisdom AND it is the accumulation of many years of study, experience, insights and intuition from a very experienced therapist with a deep level of sensitivity, compassion and understanding about human nature and how relationships work.  This book is an invaluable resource for all ages and every type of relationship.

Anjula begins by assisting us to develop an awareness of who we are before considering what kind of relationship we want. There are many questions, exercises and thought provoking case studies that enable us to discover more about ourselves and our partners. This is a book that shows rather than tells us how relationships can be improved, enlivened and enjoyed but it does it by giving us the power to do it for ourselves with the use of tips, questions and authentic and relevant case studies.

 ‘Getting to know yourself better is the cornerstone of a happy and positive relationship with another person, and that means having a healthy level of self-awareness.’ (page 11).

It is important that this book normalises and accepts the layers of difficulty that can occur in any relationship:

 ‘Recycling feelings from your past happens in relationships; it’s a by-product of living with another human being.  What this means is that you may sometimes unconsciously redirect feelings from an influential person in your past – like a parental figure – to your present-day partner. You bring to the table significant others who have influenced your beliefs and you will bring a wide range of internalised emotions about yourself, relationships and the world in general…We do this whether or not our experiences were great or dreadful. Becoming aware of this process is key to working through problems.’ (page 35).

 I remember the film, The Story of Us, with Bruce Willis and Diane Keaton playing the parts of a couple going through a divorce. There was one fantasy scene where they were filmed talking to each other in bed, with each set of parents in the bed with them; it was chaos with everyone talking at once!  It was funny but also poignant and a great truth about what happens in terms of the role models and luggage that we take into our relationships with us.  Often, we hear our parent’s voice emanating from our partners instead of what our partners are actually saying, both positively and negatively. That’s how things can become more confusing and complicated than they have to be and this book helps to explain and build an awareness of that process. I believe this book has a relevance to other important relationships as well, with friends, family members, colleagues and even our relationship with work, study or our creativity.

Anjula leads us, step by step, through our most intimate relationships from the early days, through decisions to move in together; commitment, marriage or not; starting a family and coping with blended families, which I think is a really positive term for the many different realities of modern day family life. There are interesting highlighted paragraphs with up to date research and genuinely helpful information and tips that give us short cuts to assess what is going on.  The book moves on to question how we survive crisis and learn to manage the ‘Bumps in the Road’ and ends with a sensitive, practical and poignant look at ‘Growing Older Together.’  At the end of this book, I felt there were very few stones left unturned and there was a satisfaction in the breadth and depth that was explored and achieved.

 ‘By learning how to increase your self-awareness, exploring your relationship journey so far and then rolling up your sleeves and doing the practical exercises, you will have the best ingredients to help you towards creating, nurturing and maintaining the positive relationship that you’ve always wanted.’ (page 6).

I felt the real gift in this book was that it set out to help all of us understand more about ourselves and our partners.  I remember reading a book called, The Education of Little Tree, (by Forrest Carter, (2001) University of New Mexico Press) about a Cherokee Indian boy and the word for love taught to him by his grandfather was the same as the word for understanding.

The many questions and exercises here challenge us to take responsibility for thinking deeply about what we want.  It is one of the strengths of this book that the case studies normalise the difficulties that we can all experience in relationships and enables us to take an honest look at what might be holding us back.  Relationships can be a way of accelerating learning and understanding about ourselves and a way of helping us to make more positive choices in our lives, this book really does show us, ‘How to do Relationships’.


Feelings are an important part of our humanity.  No matter what culture, age, gender, sexuality, country, politics or religion you may identify with, feelings are common to us all. Taking this further, it is something that we share with other species as well.

A very good friend
A very good friend

With the exception of people who have a specific  health issue that make feelings difficult to connect with, we all have the potential to know what it is to be sad or grieving; to be angry, frustrated or full of rage; to experience fear, anxiety or terror and we all share the capacity for joy and happiness.  Many of us are taught to know what it is to feel guilty or ashamed, although there are some cultures, for example in Tibet , where there is no word for guilt.  There is a whole spectrum of feelings from despair and hopelessness to laughter and even uncontrollable giggles that show us what it is to be truly human.

As part of our socialisation, we can become wary of our emotions being out of control but often even the strongest feelings rarely last very long and can be fleeting.  However, it is also common place for us to become attached or stuck in certain patterns of feelings that can become buried in our psyche, especially if they are unexpressed or even denied.  These can sit dormant, even simmering, for years. This is often the reason why we may seek counselling as adults, to explore, express and understand such feelings.

It is important to normalise our amazing capacity for emotion.  I have often worked with clients who were highly critical of themselves for their feelings.  There is a huge difference between having a feeling and acting upon it. One of the reasons I wrote an earlier blog about fairy tales is that such stories in childhood can make us more comfortable and accepting of a whole range of feelings that are entirely normal and ‘human’, however extreme they may feel sometimes.

We need stories  to explain, illustrate, understand and normalise our experiences and our lives as they unfold.  I often found myself saying to clients who found the way they felt to be: weird; difficult; uncomfortable; irrational; disturbing – ‘welcome to the rest of the human race’. Feelings are rarely neatly packaged, as thoughts can be and yet to be without them limits our ability to feel, even extremes that make us real and also challenging to ourselves and others.

It is important for us to be as aware and wise about feelings as it is for us to be aware and wise about our intellectual, physical and spiritual capacities. In the counselling room, much of the process is about focusing on feelings, what they are, where they come from and choices we make because of them.  It is a place to grow and develop that awareness.  We can be taught how to be clever and intelligent but to become wise, we need to be aware and able to manage every aspect of ourselves, inside and outside, and most especially our feelings.


I have used some of these meditations, visualisations and breathing exercises with individual clients and groups of staff and students.  Some of them have been designed for specific situations but the hope is that each of them will enable relaxation.

 If you have not done something like this before, it may require some practice before you are able to achieve a deep level of relaxation. I have started with some short exercises to enable you to focus on your breathing, which in itself can begin the process of creating peace inside you – hard to do in a world that is crammed full of external stimulation. Sometimes, we can feel like a bottle of fizzy drink that’s been shaken up and it can be very important for our good health and well-being to be able to find ways to quieten our inner world.

There is no right or wrong way to relax, everyone is different. I hope you may find something here that works for you. Some of these exercises are very short and can be done anywhere as a way of creating a few calm moments when you might need them most. One short exercise is designed to sharpen our imagination, which may help with some of the visualisations. Others are longer and could form part of a regular daily or weekly relaxation practice.

I have added a visualization to help people who have experienced trauma.  I developed this exercise for a client who had been stabbed and it really helped her to reclaim her physical wholeness. It focuses on creating safe and secure body boundaries for people who have experienced physical or sexual trauma or even a necessary medical or surgical treatment that might have felt invasive, albeit helpful.

There is a meditation offering comfort for people who are grieving and there are suggestions of how to create an exercise to lessen a particular fear or anxiety, which I used to good effect with students who were very anxious about doing exams.

Finally, I describe how we can get the most out of walking in a labyrinth. There is an exercise you can do using a finger labyrinth and I have enclosed a drawing of a labyrinth which could be printed on a piece of card or thick paper and used as a finger labyrinth; it may help to have this drawing laminated. You can read more about labyrinths and how to find one near you by clicking on, Labyrinth, under the heading Counselling Tools above. I hope there might be something here that you find useful.

Joining or creating a meditation group on a regular basis can be a great tool for good health and well-being.  I would also recommend the regular practice of yoga with an accredited yoga teacher. This allows you to do physical exercise first followed by a breathing exercise and a relaxation. I find such a class can give me extra energy for the day ahead or can relax me at the end of a busy day.

Be aware that any relaxation exercise could provoke a strong emotional reaction.  If this happens allow yourself to feel whatever comes to the surface. There may be situations where you decide that you need some form of counselling or therapeutic help and on the Blogroll, on the right hand side,  there are two links to my professional body, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and It’s Good to Talk where it is possible to find the name of a therapist in your area.

While doing any of these exercises, many thoughts will arise, notice them, don’t try and MAKE them disappear, let them drift away in your own time. As you end an exercise and open your eyes, it can help to ground yourself back into the present by noticing a colour, picture or shape in the room you are in.


River Sculptures by Jos


Each cell dances all day long,

a miracle of patterns and pathways

the sign of a body, potent and strong.

Cells unite and move with grace,

rhythmic forms, seething with power;

full of energy, ready to race.

What fuels this life every day?

Time, decorated with stillness

sustains each cell to dance and play

  •                   A SHORT BREATHING EXERCISE (5 minutes);


  • A SHORT RELAXATION TO RELEASE TENSION (7 minutes);(You can substitute your own words or images according to what you might need at any given time.  If you are on your way to a job interview or giving a talk, you could substitute the words: CALM, CONFIDENCE, or a short phrase, e.g. I CAN DO THIS).

  • A ‘SMILING’ RELAXATION (10 minutes); (This may seem a little weird but it is hard to get through it without smiling).

  • A VISUALISATION TO PROMOTE RELAXATION AND STILLNESS (17 minutes);(This could be used as part of a daily or weekly practice).


  • A MUSCLE RELAXATION EXERCISE (23 minutes);(This could also be used as part of a daily or weekly practice).

  • A VISUALISATION TO RECLAIM BODY WHOLENESS (24 minutes);(This has proved particularly useful to men and women who are survivors of physical or sexual trauma. It can also help someone who has experienced necessary medical or surgical treatment that might have felt invasive, albeit helpful.)



Photo by Jim Higham
Photo by Jim Higham
  • WALKING IN A LABYRINTH (7 minutes);


A Classical Labyrinth


If anyone would like a script for any of these recorded meditations, so they could make their own recording, leave a comment and an email address and I will send it out to you.




Many clients who come for counselling have received messages from family, friends and school about what they’can’t do’.  Children learn successfully to hide their strengths and shy away from risking doing some things because of a fear of failure. What is more surprising is that many of us can be even more afraid of being successful.  There is a huge motivation to fit in and John Holt wrote a book in 1974, Why Children Fail, which suggested that children actively learn to position themselves in the middle somewhere between those two.  I’ve often heard university students talk about having been bullied at school for being particularly bright or being afraid of even higher parental expectations if they do well.  Children are amazing at working out how to best survive their environment and thrive.

What I have always found important is that it is when role models, friends, family do well at something, this gives permission to other family members, friends, well all of us to achieve things maybe we didn’t believe we could.  Wise, strong, powerful, humble and creative role models are essential in this world for all of us.  Nelson Mandela has always been a hero for me with his capacity to forgive, put the past behind him and shine his light powerfully for the highest good of all. This extract from the Inauguration speech of Nelson Mandela which I think originally came from a book by Marianne Williamson was a handout I used often for clients:

Who have been some of your most important role models?