It’s my birthday and I’ve had a pretty awful day. But birthdays shouldn’t be awful, right? Especially when you’ve got the day off work. They should at least be mildly pleasant then, surely. Not for me! Not when there’s a group interview to endure for a certificate level counselling course. They were only running interviews today and tomorrow. I could’ve gone tomorrow, but I didn’t want to put it off any more than I had to. I naturally wanted it out of the way, I think anyone would. I want to do this certificate course, more than I’ve wanted to do anything in a long time. I want to pass this level so that I can go on to start the full professional diploma next year, so that in three years’ time I can call myself a qualified counsellor and finally embark on a proper career. It all hangs on this interview. There’s no other angle on it, today had to go well.
I hate pressured interview situations – you would think in counselling of all things they would find a way of making it less stressful for everyone. But the college I want to study at has two people applying for every available place, so I suppose there has to be an element of competition. I knew one person who would be in the interview with me today, a lady called B who was in the introduction class with me. How long ago that all seems now. It seemed like another life today. B had wanted to meet up beforehand to go through some potential interview questions, so we met in Starbucks an hour before it was due to start and tried to guess what we thought they would ask. Initially when she suggested meeting last week I thought I would just be doing her a favour. She looked much more nervous about the interview than I felt at that point. By today, I was as nervous as her. All the confidence I had in my abilities as a counsellor was gone this morning. We’d found out that part of the interview would involve a group negotiation exercise, which just sounded horrible. Evidently we would be expected to speak up in a large group, to stand a chance of being noticed. Just the thing to put the fear in me on the morning of my birthday.
B and I came up with some counselling related questions that were sure to come up in the individual interview slots scheduled after the group task. Questions like “why do you want to be a counsellor,” “how does your life experience impact your skills as a counsellor” seemed like pretty reliable questions to expect. As for the group exercise, we couldn’t really come up with anything. It wasn’t clear why there needed to be a group negotiation task, or what it could reveal about us as potential therapists. I surmised that maybe they would be looking to see how we deal with conflict in a group – if any of us are to become group therapists it might shed some useful light on our assets. Other than that it didn’t make a lot of sense, and we went to the interview room feeling a lot less confident than we were hoping to be.
We got there to find two other interviewees that we didn’t recognise, who it turned out had been on another introductory course that was running on a different day of the week to ours. As more and more people turned up it transpired there had been introductory classes running all through the week whilst B and I were on ours. It was like being in some strange parallel universe where all the people we’d expected to see had turned into different people. The last time we were in that room we were with fourteen other people that we had come to know and feel fond of in the space of ten weeks. Now it was full of strangers, all hoping to take a coveted spot on the next level training. Making friends was on no one’s list of priorities.
There was a brief icebreaker exercise in which we had to go around the room introducing ourselves and saying why we were there – easy enough – then we were pretty much thrown into the group task, for which we had to organise a hypothetical Christmas meal together. They didn’t tell us that we all had to speak up and contribute, but we all knew we had to anyway, so the pressure was on from the start. I did what I always do in busy AA meetings when everyone’s jumping in to share – I sat back and waited for a gap to appear in the din. After five minutes no gaps were opening up, and we only had ten minutes left. Suddenly I felt like I was in an audition for some reality TV programme. I remembered that day ten years ago when I went to the Big Brother auditions in the Docklands, when we were put into groups of ten and we had to say something to stand out and impress the show’s producers. God, what was I thinking?
It was a bit like that all over again. Horrible. It would have been so easy not to say anything, to just accept that I wasn’t meant to get on this course and that I’ll do other things with my life. But I had so set my heart on it, I’d told everyone I know that I was doing it – what could I do? I had to speak. God, those old people pleasing instincts are so hard to overcome, even now with all of my knowledge. When I needed to butt in the most I was fighting against an ego that couldn’t bear to offend anyone, couldn’t bear to have me breaking my cover, couldn’t bear to feel vulnerable. Eventually after about seven minutes I managed to say something – I can’t remember what it was now – and then I was in. It got easier from there on in to say things that mattered, and funnily enough by the time the exercise was over I felt kind of comfortable in the group. But what a fight it was to get there! As soon as they told us the time was up, I immediately began to think of all the things I hadn’t said, all the things I could have said, all the things I had said which could have been said differently, with more assertiveness. The mental torture that I go through nearly every time I share in an AA meeting was there with me today, and for the rest of the day it wouldn’t let up.
After that they gave us a few written exercises, which I’m sure were hard for some but for me remarkably easy, compared to the ordeal of the group task. We were given a quote from Carl Rogers concerning the therapeutic relationship (one of many Rogers quotes that I’ve seen in the last ten weeks), and we were asked to respond to it. “It is only as I understand the feelings and thoughts which seem so horrible to you or so weak, or so sentimental, or so bizarre – it is only as I see them as you see them and accept them and you, that you feel really free to explore all the hidden nooks and frightening crannies of your inner and often buried experience. This freedom is an important condition of the relationship.” With no idea what the right way to respond was, I was moved to write about my first experience of counselling as an anxious, suicidal teenager coming to terms with his sexuality. Over two pages I wrote about the years of shame I brought to that counselling, and how the counsellor got me to open up and trust her by simply empathising with my feelings – the first time anyone had ever tried to do that. I didn’t know if they would be impressed by me writing so much about one personal experience, rather than any theory or learning I’ve gained in college recently. I just carried on describing what I had been through, and how this key experience in my life shaped me and made me want to be a counsellor. In hindsight, I guess if they don’t want trainee counsellors who can be so open about a painful personal experience, I don’t know what kind of trainees they do want.
My individual interview slot wasn’t due until much later in the afternoon, so I had about five hours to kill in between. I started off thinking I’d go home, but then I remembered it was my birthday and I wouldn’t have the chance to do anything nice on my birthday for another year. So I walked through the West End and ended up in a favourite coffee house, where I read for a few hours. I’d meet up with B again later prior to her individual interview slot, which was to be straight before mine. I read to try and distract myself from thoughts about what could have gone better in the morning, but it didn’t really work. I could only read a few chapters of this book I’m reading about the pursuit of happiness before the noise in my head was too loud to keep ignoring.
The book by Derren Brown (one of the few British TV personalities I really admire) talks about the AA principle of acceptance and how it’s the essential key to happiness in life – without knowing it’s an AA principle. It says that since there is no magical force in the universe who’s going to give us everything we desire, we have to be realistic about what we can achieve in a lifetime; be grateful when things go well, be accepting when they don’t, because we’re powerless over nearly everything that happens to us. By the way I know I’m not reflecting Brown’s writing in the most eloquent way – he says it all in a far more articulate, intelligent manner than I ever could, and it’s well worth a read.
While normally I am at peace with the idea of taking life on life’s terms, I found it rather soul crushing today, as I could only think about what would happen if I don’t get onto this counselling course. I really don’t know what else I’d do with my life – it’s the only thing I want to do at the moment. Brown (and AA, and the Stoic philosophers) say that by pinning all my hopes on one goal I’m setting myself up for failure, I should be ready to move on to something else and find joy in my experience of the present moment, because that’s the only place I’ll ever find it. I understand this, I really do, but isn’t it human to dream? To want a career that means something?
Like a boat rocking in a stormy ocean, I felt emotions swamping me and I had to get out of the coffee shop. I went for a really long walk through Hyde Park, and for a few moments as I looked at the bare brown branches of the winter trees, I had my focus in the present moment and the feelings subsided a little, as they always do when I meditate properly. I remembered that I live in a beautiful city, that I’m very fortunate and I have a good life today. Then it got to 3 o’clock and I had to head back to the college to meet B, and the doubts and the fear started drifting in again.
As we waited in the cafe for our individual interview times B and I had much the same conversation that we had had in the morning. We tried so hard to guess what they might ask us next, and what they were possibly looking for in a trainee counsellor. We were torturing ourselves, we really were. I only had half an hour to prepare for my interview and I was feeling like a convict on death row. I really didn’t want to be there any more.
B went up for her interview at 4, leaving me to mull things over by myself. By then I was about ready to accept that this might not work out, and I might need to find another career path. If the assessors today don’t want me on the course that’s due to start in January then I think there’s little point in applying to other colleges. It would be a pretty obvious sign that I’m not meant to do this. I still want to do it with all my heart – but I was myself today and if that wasn’t enough to persuade them then nothing is.
My interview slot came around slowly. As I walked into the room I put a smile on my face, gathered all my energy to appear the serene young counsellor that I was in the triad exercises on the intro course. They only asked a few simple questions and then it was over. Why do I want to do the certificate course at this stage in my life? What would I find challenging on the course and how would I work on that? What support network do I have outside of academia? I answered honestly and calmly – and I was pleased with myself for not stumbling over my words. When they let me go I was tempted to think that I had made up for the failings of the morning. One can hope.