A Virtuous Process-Experiential Emotion-Focused Therapist
AUSTRALIAN COUNSELLING ASSOCIATION JOURNAL
VOLUME 8 number 3 SPRING 2008
According to De Certeau (1986): ‘Ethics is articulated through effective operations and it defines a distance between what is and what ought to be. This distance designates a space where we have something to do’ (p199).
This paper addresses the professional and ethical implications of working with dilemmas in my practice. I seek to discuss ‘dilemma’ in terms of ‘a challenge to therapy as a profession’: an exploration of ‘what is and what ought to be’. The focus is to identify and discuss the underlying issues which evolve through incorporating an ethical framework into my practice, whilst remaining loyal to a specific therapeutic method. I utilize virtue theory to demonstrate the relevance and challenges of embracing an ethical approach within my practice of Process-Experiential / Emotion-Focused Therapy (PEEFT).
The paper begins with an outline of virtue theory, and an exploration of a ‘virtuous PEEFT’ approach. This incorporates a discussion on the person-centred principles and autonomy-facilitating virtues, and on the trust-establishing virtues as they apply to PEEFT. I further explore virtue ethics as it applies to practice. I focus on two case studies whereby I utilize this framework to assist in understanding and processing the dilemmas arising from challenging PEEFT moments. I conclude this exploration of working as a ‘virtuous PEEF therapist’ with reflections on the implications for future practice: the possibility of working within a consistent virtuous-humanistic framework, committed to what we ought to be, rather than falling into the virtue-lacking realm of what is acceptable or expedient.
2. An Outline of Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics is characterized by an emphasis on historical virtues. The roots of virtue theory lie in the work of Aristotle, and the key concepts derive from ancient Greek philosophy1. Aristotle believed that living a virtuous life, with a sense of purpose within a community, is the goal of human living.
The key concepts include arete (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (human flourishing)2. Virtue ethics identifies the habits and behaviours that will allow a person to achieve eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is an objective state, characterizing the well-lived life, regardless of the emotional state of the person experiencing it. This state, achieved by the person who lives the proper human life, is an outcome which can only be reached by practising the virtues.
Alisdair MacIntyre, the main contemporary interpreter of virtue theory emphasizes how virtues arise out of a community, profession or tradition. In his interpretation, virtue theory is regarded as a communitarian normative approach.
According to Preston (2001): ‘Communitarianism is a large umbrella category which assumes that society is more than the mere sum of its parts and that individuality only makes sense in terms of association with others, in community’ (p62). MacIntyre emphasizes that the central question of morality concerns the habits, virtues and knowledges around ‘how to make the most of an entire human life’. Preston (2001) asserts that: ‘Virtue theorists doubt whether the ethical life is necessarily based on a set of principles or rules of reason which require deliberation and calculation’ (p59). Virtue theory emphasizes that good character, rather than rules and consequences, are the key elements of ethical thinking.3 The focus is not on morally permitted actions (how to act), but rather on the qualities necessary to become a good person. Therefore the underlying standards are grasped not through what a virtuous person ‘decides’ but through the virtues of life that enable moral action to be carried out. MacIntyre emphasises that the virtues serve to supplement, rather than replace moral rules. However, because virtues, like customs, can become outmoded and can vary in terms of cultural relativism, a central feature of a virtue should be its universal applicability.
3. A Virtuous PEEFT Approach
a) Person-centred principles and autonomy-facilitating virtues
According to Sands (2000):
Attachment to a particular theory can restrict and restrain, engendering tunnel vision and a dangerous narrowmindedness. A genuinely therapeutic environment is one is which mystery is welcomed and becomes the territory. The unknown takes its rightful place as a site for exploration. It then loses its power as a prompter of discomfort (p128).
PEEF therapy is firmly based on humanistic person-centred and Gestalt principles. The PEEFT person-centred principles of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, as necessary therapeutic conditions, are key moral virtues within a counselling ethics, and within living a well-lived life. These attitudinal conditions work in harmony with virtue ethics4. Cohen and Cohen (1999) call these autonomy-facilitating virtues, and assert they: ‘…may be considered moral virtues in the Aristotelian sense and not merely counselling styles or techniques’ (p64).
According to Cohen and Cohen (1999):
The virtuous therapist must be empathic and congruent, and must have unconditional positive regard for clients and others. These autonomy-facilitating virtues cannot easily be cast, even partly, in terms of action-guiding rules; they are largely emotive in character, and emotions cannot effectively be prescribed by a set of rules (p73).
There is therefore a powerful resonance between the virtue principles and the humanistic (PEEFT) principles, and also a ‘universal applicability’. Both acknowledge the important role of emotion. As virtue ethics does not focus on rules, but on the ‘character of the person’, this is a useful tool for both PEEF therapist and client reflection, where collaboration and achieving emotion regulation are primary. I am drawn to the emphasis on moral reasoning, and balancing ‘self-interest’ with the interests of others, where reason and emotion both have a voice. Virtue ethics is therefore an excellent framework to study our actual values and the standards of conduct by which we live. As these values and standards are the principles or attitudes which we cherish or prize, they are therefore guidelines for action with moral significance.
Caputo (2003) asserts that:
Aristotle was the first to see that ethical life is stepped in the concreteness and singularity of situations that are always slightly (and often not so slightly) unprecedented and also unrepeatable. This is not to say that we cannot and do not learn from experience, but that one of the most important things we learn from experience is to expect the unexpected, to be ready for everything, including those things that we cannot be prepared for (p174).
This is an apt reflection of the moment-by-moment process in PEEF therapy, where both therapists and clients learn to expect the unexpected. Virtue ethics, with its lack of emphasis on rules and the ‘need to be ready for anything’ provides for the ‘welcoming of mystery’. It may lead to deeper exploration of self and others in a PEEFT setting, thus reducing the potential for discomfort in the pursuit of growth and change.
b) The trust-establishing virtues as they apply to PEEFT
Cohen and Cohen (1997) outline the principles of trustworthiness (trust-establishing virtues) as: ‘Honesty, candor, competence, benevolence/nonmaleficence, diligence, loyalty, discretion, and fairness’ (p73)5.
The main objective in counseling (conditioned by the counselling attitudes of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard) is to facilitate client self-determination (autonomy or freedom of the individual to choose her own direction) and establish and maintain a therapist/client bond of trust necessary for free and open communication.
Hazler and Barwick (2001) assert that:
Person-centred therapists base their trust squarely on their belief in the human desire to develop in positive ways…. Whatever the origins of their trust, however, all therapists must carry a level of trust in clients and the process if they are to proceed with therapy ethically’ (pp110-111).
A virtuous PEEF therapist, through empathy and prizing, forms a genuine sense of trust in the clients’ ability to gain insight and self-acceptance, and instigate positive change. Trust, within PEEFT, is a reflexive process, and vital in a process which involves tasks and interventions which can be extremely confronting and challenging for clients.
According to Elliott et al (2005): ‘Alliance-building attitudes and behaviours help the client develop trust in the therapist and in the therapeutic process so that the client can engage in the often difficult work of self-exploration and active expression’ (p142).
In the context of counselling ethics, trust between therapist and client is of intense value. The virtues central to this counseling ethic, promoting trustworthy habits (and trustworthiness), serve to protect vulnerable clients against exploitation, and bring a greater awareness of the importance of trust in this arena. This is particularly relevant in working with marginalized people, such as those with mental illness, who may be isolated and lonely, who have a great mistrust in people, and who may present with neediness and dependency issues. Furthermore, frequent and changeable emerging issues, conflicts of interest, psychosis, depression, resistance, stigma, and self-stigma evoke challenges to maintaining alliance, and therefore trust. Change is slow, and may be a frustrating experience. Within this plethora of challenges, patience, as a virtue, is an additional ethically imperative consideration for reflection and ongoing evaluation working with vulnerable individuals. In the words of Venerable Traleg Rinpoche (2002):
When we engage in dialogue, we need to have patience, because understanding others who may be very different from ourselves can take a long time… The dialogue has to be an ongoing process… The dialogue has to occur in terms of understanding differences as much as similarities.
4. Case Study Dilemmas
Virtue ethics in challenging PEEFT moments
How do I maintain a commitment to a genuine, collaborative relationship with Peter, a long-term client, who is entrenched in a cycle of depression?
(Collaboration refers to an internal therapist attitude of interested engagement and equality with the client)6.
Peter is an intelligent, introspective and articulate man with depression. I have had a close working relationship with him for several years. In retrospect I realize that much of my work with him has transpired unconsciously within a virtue ethical framework. He has learnt, over time, to share his inner experience with me in a profound and honest way. This has been difficult for him, but there has been a strong commitment from us both to work on his issues of trust. Trusting is difficult for a man who has lost everything: family, friends, a successful career, hope for a wife and children, health, self-esteem, sanity. Along with his untold losses and no support, his parents (in denial) perpetuate his sense of hopelessness and self-stigma.
His life is extremely painful on a daily basis, for, as he is overwhelmed with shame and guilt, he is also desperate to regain some of what he has lost. For him to trust me, I must be worthy of his trust: I must be trustworthy. He needs constant reassurance of discretion and confidentiality. When he feels confident of this he is more self-disclosing and we can make progress.
Work with Peter is not encapsulated in predictability. It is a fragile process, and so it is vital that I do not betray this trust, albeit unwittingly. Maintaining this bond is crucial to his survival, as it is with vulnerable clients in general. I also trust him to continue being honest, to tell me his truth (unlike many who say what they think others want to hear: a legacy of the institutionalized).
With a commitment to the virtue of honesty, and to the PEEFT collaborative relationship, it is sometimes extremely challenging to remain committed to a client with whom change is almost non-existent. I also have issues with self-care as I have a tendency to lose objectivity with vulnerable clients like Peter. He battles with suicidal ideation and has attempted suicide several times. He is in and out of hospital. He is on a treadmill of medication and medicos. His arbitrary flirtations with transient, recycled dreams and goals are, it seems at times, all he has to keep ‘hope’ alive. As he travels through cycles of ‘wellness’ his goals elevate, and tend to become unrealistic. This inevitably leads to pressure, and results in a downward spiral of disappointment, depression and hospitalization.
The cycles can be frustrating and draining for me as well as Peter. He is often on my mind. I worry that he will finally reach ‘the end of his tether’ and succeed in ending his life. Within this slow and at times tortuous process, I sometimes struggle with feelings of helplessness (beyond the boundaries of the therapeutic hour) in the wake of his despair. In feeling his suffering, my work encompasses the affective virtue of empathy. But sometimes I feel impatient and even angry, losing the sense of empathy which I hold so close, and which is intrinsic to humanistic work. I must, in these moments focus on the virtue of loyalty. Loyalty allows me to maintain independence of judgment, and reminds me of the importance of not allowing personal dislike, disapproval or other negative reactions, to affect the quality of therapy. It reminds me (and this has been my own personal challenge with Peter) to not get too personally involved. It is important at these times, to also ask myself what I may need in terms of self-care. Being too involved affects my ability to make objective discernments, and may impact my professional/moral competence, such as being confident regarding what type of task or intervention is the right ‘fit’ in the moment.
Competence, as a virtue, is closely related to benevolence, described by Cohen and Cohen (1990) as: ‘to do good for others when reasonably situated and to do no harm’, this concern for the welfare of others ‘for its own sake’ (p90).
So to maintain loyalty and all its related virtues, I cannot share with Peter, my fears or frustrations regarding his situation. I wonder if, in this sense, the collaborative nature of our relationship is in jeopardy. Within a virtue ethics framework, my integral honesty, or genuineness in PEEFT terms, may be challenged. Genuineness, as it is closely linked to honesty, is a value central to the PEEF therapeutic relationship. According to Elliott et al (2004):
Genuineness consists of … a) wholeness is having integrity and being coherent; it includes having a friendly relationship with oneself and being willing to approach one’s own painful emotions; and b) authenticity is being what claims to be: natural, congruent, honest, real; being aware of one’s own experiencing, including painful emotions… Genuineness translates into presence in the form of being open or transparent with the client, including, where appropriate, being self-disclosing and ‘up front’. (p75).
The genuineness central to the PEEF relationship encourages transparency, even self-disclosure. Genuineness working with people with mental illness requires careful management as they are often very lonely, and alliance ruptures are a high risk. It is therefore an ongoing necessity and challenge to keep clear boundaries, whilst remaining committed to a ‘collaborative PEEFT trust-establishing paradigm’.
In terms of working with the vulnerable and marginalized, I believe that genuineness and honesty are appropriate insofar as their application advances the person’s interests and doesn’t violate other relevant ethical principles. Use of these virtues in the therapeutic relationship must have a curative value, and perhaps should be considered as a technique to be utilized appropriately as well as a virtuous character trait.
According to Jordan and Meara (1990): ‘Genuineness includes both a principle-oriented guide to proper action (to tell the truth) and a virtue-oriented characteristic (integrity or trustworthiness)’ (p143). In practice, these two admonitions may be independent of each other. For example, to maintain trust, ‘measured deliberateness’ may inform the practice of ‘speaking the truth’. In doing so I acknowledge the importance and application of the virtue of discretion.
Jordan and Meara state (1990): ‘Not speaking, or speaking with care and discretion can be just as critical to maintaining integrity and trustworthiness of the therapist as speaking out (p143). A ‘genuine’ therapist therefore must use experiential wisdom, as well as balance the virtues of honesty and discretion to assist with making professional judgments. Transparency, honesty and genuineness may therefore be used appropriately within the ‘moment-be-moment’ process central to PEEFT.
I reflect upon my own need for resilience, that I cannot always ‘make a difference’ in the often unchartered waters of mental illness, that I can never underestimate the magnitude of Peter’s problems. When he speaks to me of suicide intent I understand that this evolves from a pervading sense of hopelessness. I utilize loyalty in that I am willing to listen, to take him seriously and communicate a deep sense of care. I do what I can to let him know this at least one human being shows him loyalty. I remind him of the progress he has made in terms of the fact that he can now speak openly of his feelings; he can now recognize and express his core emotions.
According to Pope and Vasquez (1999): ‘Providing this degree of availability gives the client evidence of caring when that caring is absolutely necessary to convince that client that life is both livable and worth living… the overwhelming priority is to help the client stay alive’ (p246). Although it is challenging to maintain positive feelings when Peter is angry, suicidal and depressed, through PEEFT, his expression of these emotions and conditions allows a connection with life. He can also connect, albeit briefly, with another person, outside of the confines of his exploding inner world.
Through all the ‘twists and turns’ of this work with Peter, I practice candor in every step of the therapeutic process. I explain for example, when and how I identify a marker for the PEEFT interventions. In doing so, Peter is always aware of, and ready for the experiential emotional nature of the interventions.
Virtue ethics help me to remain genuinely loyal, to maintain trust in the process of change. I also use diligence to avoid assumptions. For example, I cannot assume that if Peter’s presentation improves, that the suicide risk is gone. I must keep checking. I hope that, in demonstrating this level of concern, or diligence, this may be enough to convince him of my genuineness and loyalty, and that another day of breathing is a preferable alternative to self-annihilation.
When Paul asserts his self-determination in a way that may involve potential for harm, how do I juggle his right to self-determination and my duty of care? What is my responsibility to Paul in this process?
Paul is a strong-willed, outgoing person with schizo-affective disorder. He generally has a positive outlook and holds several achievable goals. A common theme is his wish to reduce and self-monitor his medication despite onset of psychotic episodes and subsequent hospital admissions when reduction/self-monitoring has occurred in the past. Of course, this is not my decision to make, however I can explore with Paul what lies beneath this desire for a sense of ownership over an aspect of his life, which has the potential to endanger his existence. I am bound to respect Paul’s personal freedom, providing this does not involve harm. Dryden poses the following question regarding the vital issue of therapist responsibility (1985): ‘… to what degree should they (therapists) take responsibility for their clients’ welfare or to what extent should they respect clients’ autonomy and ability to make informed decisions about their own lives?’ (p3).
This is a common theme in mental health: finding the balance between what will cause least harm and what will achieve the greatest good in the process of maximizing opportunities to implement personal choices.
According to Hazler and Barwick (2001):
A degree of honesty on the parts of client and therapist seems to be one key general ingredient necessary to maintaining connection to the reality of the client’s problems and to the realities of the therapeutic relationship. Honesty, in turn, requires some degree of genuineness from participants under the assumption that honesty as opposed to deception is attached to the actual person’ beliefs (p103).
More questions emerge: How do I maintain honesty as a virtue when, even in mild psychosis, Paul’s reality is very different from my own? Do Paul and I understand each other in relation to this dilemma? Are we able to remain connected in relationship through this dilemma? What maximizes the opportunities for we both to implement our preferred choices?
Within the counselling process, I often utilize focusing (a PEEFT experiencing task). This intervention can evoke a deep connectedness whereby Paul and I are able to explore the core emotions behind his need to self-determine/self-destruct. It is important to mention, at this point, the use of candor as a virtue, to maximize Paul’s self-determination. That is, I inform him about matters related to the counselling process consistent with what he would reasonably want to know. Regarding PEEFT, I explain the tasks and interventions, and am highly transparent regarding why each is chosen. I use language that he will understand, to avoid paranoia and misunderstandings. In all aspects of intervention, a conscientious application of candor is vital, and assists the virtue of honesty, to challenge Paul’s self-beliefs and maintain connection to the reality of the therapeutic relationship, despite the impact of mild psychosis.
Through focusing, Paul and I regularly find a core emotion of shame attached to his need for self-determination regarding his medication. He is ashamed of his need for medication, as he has great difficulty accepting his illness. Paul, like many others amongst this marginalized population, is riddled with self-stigma. Through long-term work on his emotion scheme in all its complexity, we are able to challenge and work to unravel his self-stigma. In doing so we are heading towards Paul finally accepting his mental health status.
As we explore this core, new needs may emerge and I may have to question if I can provide for this need. For example, some time ago I recognized clear signs of imminent ‘unwellness’. PEEFT is a deep therapy and such signs may emerge in the counselling setting, where there is no ‘hiding’. I did not speak openly of my concerns (reserving honesty), but through exploration, assisted Paul to realize that he was becoming unwell. As a mark of his self-determination, he was foremost in making the decision to be admitted to hospital. This was a turning point for him. PEEFT (framed in the virtues of diligence, loyalty and competence) assisted Paul in realizing that self-determination may be utilized in many different ways. The flexible nature of PEEFT is evident in this example of productive work with a client. PEEFT, like virtue ethics, is not ‘rule-based’, and it allows for ever-changing goalposts in the counselling process.
I embrace the virtue of diligence, as it is vital in mental health, where maintaining understanding, rapport and trust is paramount. It means reliable counselling, carefully geared towards genuine caring. Relying upon efficient application of knowledge and ability to help, the clients’ welfare is the overriding consideration. As a diligent counsellor I cannot be forgetful or negligent. I genuinely care about Paul’s welfare, and gear the counselling process carefully towards accomplishing the goal of balancing his wellness and his self-determination. In providing reliable, careful counselling I maximize the opportunity to remain connected, when imminent ‘unwellness’ presents its unique challenges.
Working within an umbrella of PEEFT bound by an ethic of diligence, Paul and I can be more carefully guided in relationship through challenging moments. Incorporating the virtue ethics into my practice encourages reflection on my personally formed character to provide the basis for professional judgment, especially in challenging situations. In other words, it enables me to reflect on ‘who I shall be’ in a given situation.
Another theme in Paul’s self-determination is his fixation on one day living the lifestyle of his sister. She is independently wealthy, and is highly successful in both her personal and professional life. When the theme arises of this unachievable goal, I am aware that to tell the truth will devastate Paul. I will not reinforce the death of his dreams. I therefore refer to practical wisdom (phronesis) to resolve the conflict. Preston (2001) asserts: ‘Truthfulness (honesty)…. signifies an intention to be someone who is not deceptive, and whose actions reflect an integrated, ethical view that life is valuable, trust is important and that fair dealings are necessary’ (pp93-94).
Although the intention is to be honest, fairness as a virtue is also at the heart of trust. Fairness is defined by Cohen and Cohen (1990) as: ‘providing services of equal quality and magnitude consistent with maximizing the promotion of the welfare in each client (p102). In the interests of Paul’s welfare, honesty is in conflict with fairness and discretion, so I choose to allay honesty in the interests of maintaining the trust and rapport we have built over a long time. My strategy is draw our awareness back to the present moment, which tends to reinstate a fresh sense of reality and enjoyment of ‘where he is’ at the time.
Without a consideration of the interplay (and potential conflict) between the trust-establishing virtues in complex situations with complex individuals, the ‘person who I shall be’ is not reflecting an integrated being who values the virtue of nonmaleficence. This is the virtue of causing no harm; to safeguard the welfare of others through preventing pain and suffering.
In practicing nonmaleficence, I hold a moral responsibility to use knowledge and power that is consonant with Paul’s welfare in these situations. I also take time to reflect about what may help or hinder this process. Therefore if honesty leads to greater harm, especially in working with psychotic clients, then ‘dishonesty’, or a ‘softer version of the truth’ may be justified. Too much insight may be overly painful and even devastating where there is potential for unpredictable consequences.
Despite conservative use of honesty at times when nonmaleficence is paramount to balancing duty of care and self-determination, there have been major turning points in Paul’s self-sabotaging behaviour. For example, despite significant barriers, Paul has, for the past few years, applied independently for work rather than join a ‘disability employment agency’. This has resulted in an ongoing barrage of disappointment. For 10 months we have worked on his core shame to challenge the self-stigma driving many of his actions and choices. As a PEEF therapist I have refrained from advising him on what to do, but instead worked with great diligence, and attention to nonmaleficence to actively challenge his irrational belief concerning his determination to persist with mainstream employment applications.
Paul is filled with shame and guilt about not being able to work, and his self-critic is hard at work. A diligent and patient approach using PEEFT tasks and interventions has helped us to address the core issues which perpetuate his self-stigma. The central issue is to focus on his feelings about how he thinks people perceive him. Through focusing and other PEEFT interventions, we explore a deeper understanding of his beliefs about the person he wants to be, and we use the emerging evidence to challenge his fundamental beliefs. These tasks help Paul to look at the truth and consequence of his own beliefs, without the use of overt honesty, which in this case, would be too confronting and cause him unnecessary pain.
As a result, Paul has recently accepted what will work better for him in the long-term. He has now joined an appropriate agency and he is very comfortable with this choice. He also has a better understanding at to why he made these choices in the past, and what will benefit him in the future.
Attendance to nonmaleficence therefore assists me to be mindful that certain approaches, techniques and tasks are appropriate for some situations but not others. Candor determines the use of negotiation in the choice of different techniques, tasks and interventions. Diligence helps me to maintain ongoing vigilance to be aware that each hour or minute spent in relationship is unique and therefore requires unique consideration. This virtuous approach truly reflects the person-centred core of PEEFT and the importance of anticipation within the moment-by-moment process.
5. Implications for Future Practice
According to Preston, (2001, p62) the practical virtues of a virtue ethics framework include:
An emphasis on character-building which can be useful in everyday morality
An applicability to a professional role and professional ethics
A check on the excessively cognitive style of other approaches, allowing a place for feelings, roles and relationships in line with an ethic of care
A tool to assist identifying core community values in pluralist societies
As I reflect on these ‘positives’ I believe that, as a virtuous therapist, I will be more accountable for my mistakes; and demonstrate moral responsibility (mindfulness) and emotional competence when the unforeseen occurs. As a virtuous therapist I aspire to being honest, candid, discreet, benevolent, diligent, loyal and fair. However, being a virtuous therapist is not always simple. Sometimes, as is apparent in the case studies the virtues will be, or will seem to be, in conflict with one another. For example, the use of honesty in working with people with mental illness will often conflict with other virtues, and must be used with discretion.
Pope and Vasquez (1998) assert that:
Emotional competence reflects therapist’s acknowledgement and respect for themselves as unique, fallible human beings. It involves self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-monitoring. Therapists must know their own emotional strengths and weaknesses, their needs and resources, their abilities and limits (p62).
I believe that, with this greater knowledge of my ability to affect outcomes ethically, I will work with improved ‘balance’ between self-care and the courage required to promote and safeguard clients’ welfare (even by challenging the systems which may work against them). It will assist me in not only helping clients through their problems but do so competently.
This ethical approach resonates with both my theoretical approach and my personal ‘self’. I am drawn to both PEEF therapy and virtue ethics because ‘I am me’; because I consider these approaches offer guidance through complex situations. I embrace virtue ethics within practicing PEEFT because it emphasizes the importance of context, relationships, and the notion of self in a greater context. I also appreciate the notion of personal character around ‘who we ought to be’ rather than ‘what we ought to do’. I believe I have unconsciously practiced virtue ethics for years, but now the process is conscious. Perhaps this framework resonates because it is familiar, because it reflects my intrinsic approach to life. According to Bersoff (1996): ‘Character traits, though potentially malleable, are developed as a result of genetic endowment and life experiences’ (p146).
The ‘virtue’ focus on moral qualities encourages reflection on the following:
‘Will this ethical response be consistent with the kind of person (character or disposition) I aim to be?’
‘Am I imposing my own systems of values/virtues on my clients?’
‘Do I have the character traits which will enable me to achieve these ideals?’
‘Can these character traits be taught?’
As an ethical imperative in counselling, this framework evokes new awareness of all that must be considered when a dilemma arises in the context of the therapeutic relationship. I have a heightened awareness throughout all stages of the counselling experience, adding layers to the skeleton of theory, and richness to the therapeutic process. This more integrated, global, and holistic approach brings with it a sense of moral accountability and heightened reflection; and a sense of personal congruence between self in therapy and self in a well-lived life. It keeps my approach fresh, and keeps alive the privilege of sharing the personal challenges and victories of others, within my personal vision of growth and excellence. I now consider not only questions about how to resolve a specific problem, but also deeper questions about how I live and the person I wish to be. Therefore there is external gain: virtues in terms of their value for clients; and internal gain, as virtues are of value in themselves. The therapeutic relationship embodies a new sense of moral complexity and accountability in the practice of understanding (and walking alongside) those who choose, with courage, to reveal the inner parts of ‘self’.
Hillman (1999) says:
Some of what I mean by ‘force of character’ is the persistence of the incorrigible anomalies, those traits you can’t fix, can’t hide, and can’t accept… We are left realizing that character is indeed a force that cannot succumb to willpower or be reached by grace… Character forces me to encounter each event in my peculiar style. It forces me to differ. I walk through life oddly. No one else walks as I do, and this is my courage, my dignity, my integrity, my morality, and my ruin (p181).
In the final analysis, I reflect upon the trust-establishing virtues, including patience, as both a valuable moral beacon for life, and for building and maintaining a trusting therapeutic alliance. Without trust we are formless beings, and we stand alone in bleakness. To elaborate upon Hillman’s poignant ramblings: Alone or in relationship, we are human, you and I, he and she, each one unique. Perhaps we all, along with the vulnerable and marginalized, struggle as we walk through life oddly.
I willingly embrace a brilliant theory, and enclose it within a meaningful and resonant ethical framework. I aspire to being a ‘virtuous therapist’. It is, with a sense of loyalty … my favorite virtue (or is it a character trait), that I bear witness to the battles, the pathos, the torture inherent in relentless mental illness: all this… but walking proudly alongside ‘those others’, whose virtues breathe inherently with a profound sense of universal applicability: courage, dignity, integrity.
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