Counselling and the Life Course


Léonie Sugarman

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  • Professional Skills for Counsellors

    The Professional Skills for Counsellors series, edited by Colin Feltham, covers the practical, technical and professional skills and knowledge which trainee and practising counsellors need to improve their competence in key areas of therapeutic practice.

    Titles in the series include:

    Counselling by Telephone

    Maxine Rosenfield

    Medical and Psychiatric Issues for Counsellors

    Brian Daines, Linda Gask and Tim Usherwood

    Time-limited Counselling

    Colin Feltham

    Personal and Professional Development for Counsellors

    Paul Wilkins

    Client Assessment

    edited by Stephen Palmer and Gladeana McMahon

    Counselling, Psychotherapy and the Law

    Peter Jenkins

    Contracts in Counselling

    edited by Charlotte Sills

    Counselling Difficult Clients

    Kingsley Norton and Gill McGauley

    Learning and Writing in Counselling

    Mhairi MacMillan and Dot Clark

    Long-term Counselling

    Geraldine Shipton and Eileen Smith

    Referral and Termination Issues for Counsellors

    Anne Leigh

    Counselling and Psychotherapy in Private Practice

    Roger Thistle

    The Management of Counselling and Psychotherapy Agencies

    Colin Lago and Duncan Kitchin

    Group Counselling

    Keith Tudor

    Understanding the Counselling Relationship

    edited by Colin Feltham

    Practitioner Research in Counselling

    John McLeod

    Anti-discriminatory Counselling Practice

    edited by Colin Lago and Barbara Smith

    Counselling and the Life Course

    Léonie Sugarman



    Dr Geoffrey Brown

    – teacher, mentor and friend –

    in celebration of his eightieth birthday,


    Erica, Clare, Amy and Sam

    – the ‘Sugarman Peace’ gang –

    who, as fledgling adults, represent the future.


    View Copyright Page


    The present text has been influenced and much improved by the thoughtful comments and insights of generations of students at St Martin's College in Lancaster and Carlisle. In working towards their Diploma (Higher Education) in Counselling they have debated, engaged with, and challenged many of the ideas here presented. I am grateful to Colin Feltham for his editorial support, and wish that I could have done greater justice to all his suggestions for improvements and developments of the text. I would like to thank my husband, David Sugarman, for his support and encouragement; for providing a regular supply of tea, coffee and wine as I worked on the book; for ensuring that my computer and its soft-ware were always up to scratch; and for sorting out the sundry technical problems that beset the work at various, generally highly inconvenient, times.

  • Appendix: Commentaries on the Activity Trail Exercises

    First, a disclaimer: this appendix does not comprise a series of ‘model answers’ to a series of ‘test questions’ represented by the Activity Trail. Indeed, a number of the commentaries include several more questions. Rather, these commentaries are designed to aid your reflection on the activities – examining and trying to make sense of the responses that you gave. They represent the third stage in David Kolb's (1984) cycle of experiential learning, a model that conceptualises learning as a continuous process grounded in experience:

    • immediate concrete experience is seen as the basis for
    • reflection and observation;
    • from these observations abstract concepts are developed and then
    • actively tested, giving rise to
    • a new concrete experience.

    Since this last experience is different from that which initiated the learning cycle, the model is best represented as a spiral rather than a circle (there is a link here to pictorial metaphors, as alluded to in Activity 1). Learning occurs in the gap between experience and concept. Experience provides the material that allows us to modify our concepts – that is, to learn. It is my assumption that the first stage of learning resides where Kolb places it – in the concrete emotional experiences that make up your life course in general, and, in particular, your experience of becoming and being a counsellor. It is this experience that the activities draw upon. The activities themselves represent the ‘Reflective observation’ stage of the learning cycle, although – as with both life stages and transitions – the boundaries between the stages blend into one another. The activities themselves may be, at least in part, concrete experiences, and may well trigger abstract conceptualisations before you turn to the pages of this appendix. But this is what the commentaries are primarily concerned with – the garnering and interpretation of your responses into theoretical constructs. My hope is that you will then be able to take these insights and use them (or ‘actively experiment’ with them, to use Kolb's terminology) in your counselling practice.

    I hope it is clear that the exercises making up the Activity Trail are not written in stone. Nor are they the only exercises that could have been chosen. They are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Some of the activities focus on your own personal experience, others ask you to reflect on your understanding of your clients’ world. All can be adapted to your own particular needs. If the questions in the Activity Trail exercises do not address your particular concerns, then compose your own questions – they are the trigger rather than the answer, and should be amended to meet your particular needs and interests.

    Activity 1: Metaphors of the Life Course

    The framework offered by the notion of the life course provides a conceptual bridge between individuals and the society in which they live their lives. Metaphorical images of the life course reflect an emphasis on one or more of four core principles that characterise a life course perspective (Shanahan et al., 2003); namely:

    • change is a cumulative and lifelong human process;
    • human lives are embedded in and shaped by both their environment – social, cultural, technological and physical – and the historical time in which they live;
    • people construct their own life course – albeit within the constraints and opportunities of personal, social and historical circumstances;
    • the impact and meaning of life course experiences hinge on when they occur in a person's life.

    In using the metaphor of a river as the opening sentence of our chapter in the Handbook of Counselling (Palmer and McMahon, 1997), Ray Woolfe and I strove to capture this dynamic, interactive, multifacted and mutable quality:

    The life course of each of us can be thought of as a river. On occasions turbulent, but at other times calm, it flows in a particular general direction, whilst deviating here and there from a straight and narrow path. It meets and departs from other rivers or streams along the way, having a momentum of its own whilst both influencing and being influenced by the environment through which it flows. (Sugarman and Woolfe, 1997: 22)

    Thus, a river, like the life course, does not reach a static endpoint – it continues to move and change throughout its journey. This movement is not, however, consistent, unidirectional or entirely predetermined; and its path can alter as it wends its way through terrain that can either help or hinder its progress. The river affects the terrain through which it flows; and this terrain, in turn, lends the river a significant amount of its structure. The river changes across seasons and epochs; and the same incident – a drought, a dam, a jetty, for example – will have a different impact depending on the nature of the river at that point in its course. Look back at your own preferred metaphors and think about which of the above principles they best encapsulated.

    Whilst different metaphors of the life course may be more or less apt, they are not intended to be unequivocally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Whilst all have elements of truth, it is unlikely that any is complete or entirely satisfactory. Instead, they represent different philosophical positions. Salmon (1985: 126) identifies three predominant metaphors, each reflecting a different set of values and assumptions about the nature of the life course: life as a game of cards; life as a natural cycle; and life as a story.

    In the ‘life as a game of cards’ metaphor, winning is the key:

    If there is one metaphor which fits most easily into our society, which is most readily encompassed by our social structures and institutional frame-work, it is perhaps the metaphor that human life represents a game of cards. Within this image, to be born any particular human being is to be dealt some of the most important cards of the hand that, in living, one must play. To be born into a ‘good’ family, a family which is middle-class rather than working-class, white rather than black, settled, respectable, prosperous rather than impoverished and insecure – that is to start life with certain key cards. Gender and physique represent other kinds of suit, in which the male card is preferable, but in which card combinations are also important. … Other cards in the hand are not available at birth, but are acquired later, particularly during childhood and adolescence. They represent factors which will affect later life chances, such as exam passes, kind of schooling, early pregnancy or involvement with the police.

    Getting the ‘best’ cards is not, however, the end of the story: ‘A good hand does not inevitably bring success, nor a bad one failure. Winning the game depends on “playing your cards right”’ (Salmon, 1985: 127). The metaphor of the card game portrays people as fundamentally individualistic and life as basically competitive.

    In similar vein, Levinson et al.'s (1978) use of the image of a ladder to convey career development during midlife depicts it as an achievement-oriented, heroic and stereotypically masculine journey – ‘onward and upward’ we might say. In a paper that challenges stage models of spiritual development as too rational and individualistic, Ray and McFadden (2001) use metaphors of a web and a quilt to convey the more intuitive and relational quality of women's spirituality. Also writing from a feminist perspective, Chaplin (1988: 45) – using the image of a spiral – focuses on development as a process, rejecting the idea of directional movement towards an explicit, coherent ‘end-state’:

    We grow and change in more of a spiral than in a straight line. We go backwards as well as forwards. Perhaps we can only go forwards if we go backwards and regress into childlike feelings first. Growth is working with the rhythms, not proceeding from some depressing reality to a perfect harmonious self in the future.

    As an image radically different from that of the game-playing metaphor, Salmon (1985: 133) invokes metaphors rooted in the natural world:

    You are, let us imagine, a plant, a shrub, a tree. There you stand, rooted in the soil within which also grow other kinds of plant. That soil nourishes you; but so also do the sunlight and the rain that fall upon you. You have your seasons, each of which is different, all of which are necessary.

    The seasons repeat themselves in an everlasting cycle of growth, ripening and decay. Each phase in the cycle has its own meaning and importance. All play their part in making the whole complete. The metaphor of life as a natural cycle has been popular in literature, in everyday life and in academic writings. Thus, Levinson (1996; Levinson et al., 1978) talks of seasons, Super (1980; 1990) of a rainbow and Jung (1972) of middle age as the noon of life. Whilst the organic, developmental aspect to the metaphor is appealing, the metaphor of a natural cycle is also prescriptive. A violet can only become a violet; it cannot choose to become a bluebell or a rabbit. Normality is narrowly defined. The human life course is not, in this metaphor, something we construct for ourselves. Rather, it is our own nature unfolding.

    The metaphor of a story, Salmon's third vision of the human life course, has an important place in the present book. It is implicated in several other posts in the Activity Trail (including Activity 3: Life chapters, and Activity 5: Lifeline), and it is elaborated in Chapter 5, Life stories. In contrast to the metaphor of the natural cycle, the metaphor of a story grants us a role as the creator of our own life:

    Each of us lives a story that is ours alone. It is this story which gives our lives their essential shape, defines their heights, their plateaux, their declines, marks out their movement, direction, changes in direction. In living, we tell our stories. … As authors, we have agency. (Salmon, 1985: 138)

    Think back again to the metaphors you were drawn to in Activity 1. It is likely that they reflect your viewpoint on a number of key issues – the relative importance, for example, of ‘nature’ versus ‘nurture’; the interplay between ‘continuity’ and ‘change’; the balance between ‘choice’ and ‘des-tiny’; or the extent of ‘unique’ versus ‘shared’ experiences. What are the strengths and the limitations of the metaphors that you chose? What assumptions do they make about the nature of the life course? What are their implications for practice?

    Activity 2: What is an Adult?

    When used as a class exercise, this activity generally generates much discussion, and, on occasions, a considerable amount of hilarity. Claims along the lines of ‘Well, I'm certainly not grown up’ are often to be heard, sometimes followed by the addendum, ‘And I hope I never will be!’ – recognition, here, that growing up involves loss as well as gain. Alternatively, the exercise may generate a sense of satisfaction; a feeling that, ‘Perhaps I'm more grown up than I thought I was!’ Many individuals, and groups, fail to produce what they consider to be a complete or satisfactory definition of adulthood. Asking the supplementary question ‘When you were a child, what did you think being an adult meant?’ produces some of the more pithy definitions – ‘Lipstick and high-heels’ being perhaps the most succinct.

    Groups of trainee counsellors are by no means the only people who struggle to define what is an adult. Thus, UNESCO in 1976 determined that ‘adults are those people whom their own society deems to be adult’ (Rogers, 1996: 34) – a somewhat circular definition that nonetheless conveys the social and cultural dimension of the concept. Two educationalists (Knowles, 1990, and Alan Rogers, 1996 – not to be confused with his name-sake Carl) interested in adult learning have also addressed this question.

    Knowles (1990) distinguished four different definitions of ‘adult’, and aspects of each of these are likely to have emerged during your deliberations.

    • Biological adulthood: the age at which we can reproduce.
    • Legal adulthood: the age at which the law says we can vote, purchase alcohol, get a driver's licence, marry etc. Note, however, that these definitions do not produce an unequivocal answer. The trappings of adult status are attained at varying and differing ages in different cultures.
    • Social adulthood: the age at which we start performing adult roles, such as the role of full-time worker, spouse, parent, voting citizen etc. Again, these do not coalesce around a single point in time.
    • Psychological adulthood: the age at which we arrive at a self-concept of being responsible for our own lives, of being self-directing.

    Alan Rogers (1996: 35), dissatisfied with attempts to generate a concise and satisfactory definition of an adult, came up instead with three clusters of ideas that ‘lie within any view of adulthood’:

    • Some notion of being fully grown – or at least of having reached a certain level on the path to maturity or full development. This includes not only Knowles’ biological definition of adulthood as sexual maturity, but also the notion of personal growth, the expansion and utilisation of all the individuals’ talents, and the process of moving towards still greater maturity.
    • A sense of perspective, best illustrated by comparing it to what we deem to be childishness:
    • There are occasions when an older person is regarded as behaving ‘childishly’, in a non-adult fashion. Such childishness may consist of the individual seeing themselves as either being more important than they are seen by others to be, or conversely, as less important than they really are. The former throws a tantrum, acts petulantly, makes a fuss and is frequently further infuriated by the accusation of childish behaviour; the latter withdraws, sulks or submits passively, normally accepting the charge of childishness with less hostility. In both cases we expect ‘adults’ to behave with a greater sense of perspective than is being shown, a perspective that will lead to sounder judgements about them-selves and about others. We expect them to have accumulated experience that, if drawn upon, will help them achieve a more balanced approach to life and to society. (Rogers, 1996: 35–6)
    • Self-responsibility – being responsible for oneself, for one's own deeds and one's own development.

    Although we often think of adulthood in terms of chronological age, it is a process rather than a status, and the criteria of adulthood are attained gradually. The process of developing a sense of self-directedness can start early in life, and grow cumulatively as we become biologically mature, start per-forming adult-like roles and take increasing responsibility for our own decisions. We become adult by degrees, and having a fully fledged sense of ourself as self-directed probably does not occur until we have achieved, or consciously rejected, several normative trappings of adulthood, such as leaving full-time education, having a full-time job, being in a settled relationship and having children. No adult is ever likely to have fulfilled all criteria that could denote adulthood, but, given the emphasis on chronological age as a convenient marker of appropriate developmental status, it is unsurprising that people – both counsellors and clients – are often concerned about ‘How well am I doing for my age?’

    Activity 3: Life Chapters

    By beginning to explore your own life course, this third exercise in the Activity Trail gives, in a small way, testimony to your own experience – the route that brought you to where you are today.

    The exercise can be completed in many different ways and, because of this, it can be valuable to discuss your ‘Life chapters’ with one or more colleagues, and compare the different ways you have approached this task. Activity 11: Exploring your story, builds on the current activity by fleshing out the con-tent of these chapters in far greater detail.

    Despite individual variations, it is quite probable that your Life chapters are in some way anchored to chronological age; although it is rarely age per se that defines a chapter or the transition from one chapter to the next. Rather, the focus of particular chapters often revolves around different roles to do with education, work or personal life – being a preschooler, at primary school, unemployed, working in a particular job, being married, being single, being divorced etc. The beginning and end of chapters are frequently marked by discontinuities or significant redirections in your life – role entry or exit, perhaps, or a major loss, or some other significant life event. Whereas a focus on life stages tends to direct attention to chronological age or shared normative transitions, a focus on life chapters allows you to find and identify the unique ‘natural breaks’ in your life course. Think about the extent to which your ‘natural breaks’ conform to social norms. To what extent do they reflect an alternating sequence of structure-changing and structure-building phases?

    Think about the overall tenor of your ‘Table of Contents’. What does it mainly depict – change or continuity? Is it very much about you and you alone, or is it more about your relationships with people, places and organisations? What do the chapters predominantly reflect – your main activities at the time, your key relationships, or your inner being?

    Activity 4: Developmental Stages and Tasks

    The first task in this activity – ‘Where would you place the boundaries between stages?’ – relates to the question of what constitutes a life stage. Take a moment to consider the length of the various stages that you have identified. I find only rarely that they are all of approximately the same chronological length (for example, ‘under ‘10’, ‘10 to 19’, ‘the 20s’, ‘the 30s’ etc.). More generally, the stages are of widely differing length – often with many stages crowded into the years of infancy, childhood and adolescence, and then great swathes of time allocated to a single phase during the adult years. This generally reflects the dramatic impact of physical and cognitive development during the earlier years of life and the personal and social changes that they provoke, in comparison to the less tangible and more socially constructed phases of adulthood.

    The remaining questions in Activity 4 are directly related to the topic of developmental tasks. Think about the origins of the tasks you identified – what is the ratio for different tasks of the three sources identified by Robert Havighurst (1972): physical maturation, social norms and personal aspirations?

    Havighurst developed lists of six to nine developmental tasks for each of six life stages, amending the lists throughout his career as social changes made some of them obsolete or outdated. Describing the tasks in fairly general terms (for example, ‘Exploring intimate relationships’ rather than ‘Learning to live with a marriage partner’) can render them less susceptible to changing social norms, as in the list below, which has been adapted from Newman and Newman's (1995) attempt to identify the major issues that dominate a per-son's learning and problem-solving efforts during a given stage.

    How similar is this list to the one you generated? To what extent does it reflect developmental tasks in other than a Western, post-industrial society? To what extent do you see these tasks reflected in the issues that clients of different ages bring to counselling? Do you find the idea of developmental tasks helpful, or do you find it confining – smothering the uniqueness of each individual life?

    Activity 5: Lifeline

    The Lifeline exercise exists in many versions and it could also be thought of as a graphical version of Activity 3: Life chapters. It has the advantage of suggesting in visual form both the eventfulness of a life (indicated by the number of ‘peaks’ and ‘troughs’ punctuating the line) and the degree of dramatic tension (expressed by the steepness of the upward and downward slopes) (Gergen, 1988).

    Over the last two decades I have asked hundreds of students (of counselling or otherwise) to complete this exercise. It is rare that it does not trigger much food for thought – both personal and academic. I never cease to be fascinated by the myriad ways in which people tackle the exercise and make it relevant to their own situation and need. Sometimes it is completed systematically, with chronological age marked in equally sized intervals along the horizontal line. More often, though, it is completed less precisely, with periods of upheaval and change receiving most attention, sometimes with several years of greater tranquillity being passed over in a mere centimetre or two. It is not unusual for people to be unwilling or unable to project their Lifeline into the future. Most do have a go, however – although these projections are generally quite vague and unspecific (sometimes drawn more faintly or as a dotted line, as if to indicate lack of certainty), and often reflecting hopes rather than necessarily expectations. Often the Lifeline is punctuated by sudden changes of direction and by dramatic highs and lows. When, however, the whole line is relatively flat, its author rarely claims this is because it depicts an uneventful or emotionally neutral life. Rather, it tends to be because the author found it hard to sum up a multifaceted and multi-directional life course within a single line – any one moment can be, to use the opening words of Dickens’ (1994) Tale of Two Cities, both ‘the best of times’ and ‘the worst of times’. Indeed, one development of the activity is to draw several lifelines representing, for example, Gilmore's (1973) three domains of work (or endeavour), relationships and aloneness (or self). The similarities and differences in their shape and rhythm can then be explored, along with points in time when the trajectory of one line influenced or was influenced by the trajectory of another. However, to do all this is very time-consuming, and most people – even if they are primarily aware of its limitations – are able to produce some sort of a Lifeline that they can use as a basis for reflecting on their own life course (past, present and future) and, on the waxing and waning of recurrent themes and preoccupations.

    The questions following the completion of the lifeline in Activity 5 are designed to lead you into discussion of several issues related to the study of the life course, including: the balance between losses and gains; the criteria against which we judge the quality of our life; the triggers of transitions; and the possibility of post-traumatic growth. Your lifeline is a representation of your life course that you might return to as different topics are raised in sub-sequent chapters of the book.

    Activity 6: Curriculum Vitae

    The curriculum vitae asked for in this activity is not, I suspect, quite the one you would prepare for a job application. It is, perhaps, more like one you might put together during a career planning workshop, where the aim is not to market yourself to a potential employer, but to engage in exploration and decision making about your career goals and aspirations.

    The aim of the activity is to provide you with a basis for considering how your professional self has evolved since you made the decision to embark on training in counselling. Think about your responses in relation to the career stages identified by Donald Super et al. (1988). Can you place yourself on the sequence of exploration; establishment; maintenance; and disengagement? Perhaps your experience resonates more with Skovholt and Ronnestad's (1995) account of the stages of professional counsellor development. Do you, then, see professional development as growth towards professional individuation?

    Activity 7: Working with Clients of Different Ages

    We see ourselves and others through a filter of age, but since this filter can be distorting, it is important that it is examined so that its impact can be acknowledged and better understood. It is towards this end that the present activity is directed. Issues concerning working with clients of different ages emerge throughout the chapter of which this activity is a part. Also relevant are the discussion of age and ageism, in Chapter 1 and the summary, in Chapter 6, of key issues on which the client's age has an impact. These issues include:

    • the social and economic power that is typically associated with different life stages;
    • the cognitive and physical standing of the client;
    • the implications of being a member of a particular cohort or generation;
    • the client's reaction to the counsellor's age and life stage;
    • the counsellor's reaction to the client's age and life stage; and
    • the significance of all of the above for the development of empathy.

    Sometimes I find that people are uncomfortable with this exercise when it is first presented to them. The usual objection is along the lines of ‘It's the person that I see, not their age’ – a comment that suggests an implicit awareness that chronological age is nothing more than an indicator of the amount of time that has passed since birth, and that time, per se, causes nothing. In this sense it is right to be age-blind, and to rail against pervasive and deeply embedded networks of age-related norms and expectations. On reflection, however, most people conclude that age is a significant, albeit often unacknowledged, dimension in the counselling relationship. The time we have lived has not been a vacuum: ‘Years are not empty containers’, writes Andrews (1999: 309); ‘important things happen in that time. Why must these years be trivialised? They are the stuff of which people's lives are made’. And it is this ‘stuff’ that clients bring to counselling. To cut ourselves off from our age is to cut ourselves off from part of who we are.

    I have used this activity primarily with counsellors in training who have only recently begun their practice. They have therefore only limited experience of working with clients, and have certainly not worked with clients over a wide age range. They can, however, draw on their own personal experience in addressing this task. There is often recognition that their own family situation has an impact. If they have lived through the rebellions of their adolescent children, if they have cared for frail elderly parents, if they have weathered the storms of divorce or bereavement, then there is often a feeling that this makes them better able to work with clients facing similar issues. If they are currently in the midst of such life events, then they recognise the difficulty they may have in sufficiently disentangling themselves from their own experience. The activity can, therefore, also lead into discussion of fit-ness to practise.

    Ironically, bringing the issue of a client's age to the foreground in this activity can reduce its power. Its impact becomes less hidden and subversive. Age is more than a mask (Featherstone and Hepworth, 1989, 1990). But it is not all-determining. By acknowledging and bringing into the open the significance of age it then becomes easier to look beyond the mask of age to the agelessness as well as the ageing of the person beneath.

    Activity 8: Transitions and Turning Points

    My experience has been that the first task in this exercise – generating the list of major landmarks in your life – represents the hub of the activity, and is far from the simple task that it might first appear. I have never used this exercise with children, but I find that young adults under the age of about 22 or 23 (‘fledgling adults’ in the terminology used in Chapter 3) not infrequently find it difficult to generate a list of more than 10 or so significant landmarks in their life. Older respondents rarely have this problem, but are often surprised both by what they end up including in their list, and by what they leave out. Often it is only during the discussion stage of the activity that people become aware of the ‘big events’ that they have left off their list. This underscores vividly the significance of the meaning and interpretation of an event over its objective, tangible characteristics.

    The questions in this activity about ‘types’ of events and their timing relates to some of the conceptual distinctions used in discussing the life course. One distinction is between normative age-graded, normative history-graded and non-normative events (Baltes et al., 1980).

    • Normative age-graded events are biologically and environmentally deter-mined events that have a fairly strong relationship with chronological age. Learning to walk is an example of the former, and the age at which we enter the education system is, within any particular society, an example of the latter. Often these events are shared by many members of a particular society, but there may be some rarely occurring events (such as the onset of a particular illness) that are nonetheless associated with a particular chronological age.
    • Normative history-graded events are events that have a fairly strong relationship with historical time rather than chronological age. They are cohort specific, being shared by members of a particular generation, but not – or not in the same way – by members of the generations preceding or following them.
    • Non-normative events are the events that occur more or less randomly with regard to age or life stage. They are the events that might happen to us at any age, and are not necessarily ones that are shared by others of our generation.

    Age-graded normative events make up a significant part of the normal, expectable life cycle, and it has been suggested (Neugarten, 1979) that such events tend to pose fewer difficulties of adaptation than do those events that are unexpected or ‘off time’. However, sometimes the fact that the events were anticipated, along with the sense that most other people seem to be coping fine, can accentuate feelings of inadequacy if we struggle – especially if the event had long been a part of our life plan and had, indeed, been anticipated with pleasure. When we achieve the job of our dreams; the perfect home; the much-longed-for child etc., any difficulties of adjustment we might have can be accentuated by the sense that ‘I shouldn't feel this way – I've got exactly what I wanted’.

    If you found that the life events in your list clustered around particular points in the life course, then think about whether this reflects Levinson et al.'s (1978) distinction between structure-changing and structure-building phases of the life course. This might be the moment to return to the discussion of Levinson's concept of the evolving life structure that was introduced in Chapter 1.

    Overall, this activity is a validity check on the models and concepts introduced in Chapter 4, introducing readers in a concrete rather than an abstract way to issues such as those raised by the following questions.

    • What do we mean by a transition or turning point?
    • What makes a life event ‘significant’?
    • How might our passage through transitions be helped, or hindered?

    This activity can also usefully be examined in the context of Activity 3: Life chapters and Activity 5: Lifeline. Do, for example, the landmark events chosen in this activity correspond to some of the events marking the beginning or end of chapters in Activity 3, or the peaks or troughs in Activity 5?

    Activity 9: Stability Zones

    Counselling is inextricably entwined with making changes – of behaviour, thoughts, feelings, awareness, understandings, interpretations. Tumults and upheavals cry out and grab our attention, making it all too easy to overlook that which might, by remaining constant, hold us steady. But this is what a stability zone does. Like the light in T.S. Eliot's (1944) Burnt Norton it is a ‘still point in the turning world’.

    Because of their reliability and constancy it is easy to overlook stability zones, or take them for granted until we need them – at which point we may discover that they are in fact less permanent or effective than we had assumed. Both our stability zones and what we need of them change over time, and it is important, therefore, that they are recognised, nurtured and developed. The next activity trail exercise – Activity 10: Interpersonal sup-port convoys – explores ‘people’ stability zones. An activity that can foster awareness of ‘things’ as stability zones is the values clarification exercise Saved From the Fire. This is what you do.

    • Imagine that your house is on fire. All occupants – people and animals – are safe, and you have the chance to save 10 items from the blaze.
    • Think about, and then list, the 10 items that you would choose.
    • Share your list with another person or a small group, saying something about the reasons for your choice. If possible, bring one of the most important (and most portable) items along with you.

    Reflect on what the items on your list mean to you. Sometimes the items selected are of practical value or importance – home insurance details, pass-port, financial documents – and sometimes they are of high monetary value or intrinsic beauty. More often, however, the value of the items chosen is primarily symbolic. Things can be stability zones not only in and of them-selves, but also as links with other stability zones and reminders of who we are and what we have been.

    Activity 10: Interpersonal Support Convoys

    An interpersonal support convoy is a particular type of stability zone that focuses on personal relationships. What the idea of a convoy captures particularly well is the dynamic nature of stability zones – whilst offering stability, they are not static. Figuratively, an interpersonal support convoy would be better represented as a series of concentric tubes rather than circles, with some members of the convoy moving, over time, between rings – some moving towards the core, whilst others gravitate towards the outer rings and perhaps leave the convoy altogether.

    A point to consider is whether, when a person near the centre of our convoy dies, do they disappear from our convoy altogether? Literally, of course they do – their physical and breathing presence has gone. But figuratively, they may remain – ‘I wonder what Jim would have advised’, we might ask yourself; ‘Mary would have been pleased to see me do that’, we might say. In this way, the bonds between yourself and the person who has died can continue, as discussed in the section in Chapter 5 on transitions. As the bonds are reformulated to accommodate the physical absence of the deceased, the relationship moves from being a stability zones in the ‘people’ category towards being an example of an ‘ideas’ stability zone.

    It is worth reflecting for a moment on the placement of a counselling relationship in the client's support convoy. The relationship is actually a professional, role-dependent relationship, although its relational depth may lend it some of the quality of a relationship that is more typically nearer the centre of the convoy. This is one of the factors that makes boundary and dual-role issues, as well as the management of endings, so important in counselling. If a counselling relationship is suddenly or insensitively severed, the client can feel bereft – feeling as if they have lost a friendship rather than a professional service. Similarly, trainee counsellors have to learn how to handle feelings of abandonment and rejection when clients either do not show up for their appointments, or prematurely (in the counsellor's view) terminate their counselling.

    Activity 11: Exploring Your Story

    Dan McAdams proposes that in contemporary society, psychotherapy and autobiography are the two most common tools through which we identify our personal narrative. Many counsellors will have experienced the former. Activity 11 provides one structure for attempting the latter as well. The commentary below makes reference to the key structural elements of a life story that are summarised in Chapter 5 in the section on ‘story as identity’. It will make greater sense if you have read this section of the book before tackling the commentary.

    • Life chapters. From Activity 3: Life chapters (in Chapter 2), you may already have found a way of organising your personal narrative that both reminds you and enhances your understanding of the major landmarks and developmental trends in your life. In terms of narrative elements, completion of the life chapters exercise is likely to give indications of both narrative tone and personal imagery.
    • Key event. Supplementary prompts and questions (McAdams, 1997) for exploring key events in your personal narrative include the following.
      • What happened?
      • Where was I?
      • Who was involved?
      • What did I do?
      • What was I thinking and feeling at the time?
      • What impact has this event had on my life story?
      • What does it say about who I am or was?
      • Did the event change me in any way? If so, how?
    • Analysis of key events should generate further insight into narrative tone and personal imagery. It may also be possible to begin to distinguish the role of different motivational themes.
    • Significant people. This section of the interview, not surprisingly, generates information about the characters (or imagoes) that populate our narrative. McAdams suggests that the people selected might include, but not necessarily be limited to, your parents, children, siblings, spouses, lovers, friends, teachers, colleagues and mentors. He advocates choosing at least one person to whom you are not related. You might also think about including in your choice a particular hero or heroine – either real or fictitious – who has been important to you.
    • Future script. This section switches attention from the past to the future. Our plans and goals – and, notably, our dreams for the future – reflect our basic needs and wants and, as with key events, are likely to reveal the motivational themes in our life story. McAdams suggests a particular prompt for this section, namely:
      • How, if at all, does your dream, plan or outline for the future enable you to (1) be creative and (2) make a contribution to others.
    • This question addresses your approach to generativity – the creation of a gift of the self that is offered to the next generation.
    • Stresses and problems. It is likely that you have already touched on some areas of difficulty in your life. This section provides the opportunity to consider the nature of the stress, problem or conflict in some detail. Outline the source of the concern, how it developed, and your plan, if you have one, for dealing with it in the future.
    • This analysis can signal issues and conflicts that may need to be resolved in successive revisions of the personal narrative – perhaps, for example, allowing valued but hitherto underdeveloped characters or imagoes to flourish.
    • Personal ideology. Questions in this section relate to the ideological setting of your life story; your fundamental beliefs and values, such as:
      • any belief you might have in the existence of some kind of god, deity, or force that in some way influences or organises the universe;
      • the essence of any such beliefs, and the ways, if any, in which your beliefs differ from those of most people you know;
      • ways in which your religious beliefs have changed over time;
      • your political position;
      • what you consider to be the most important value in human living.
    • Overall life theme. This final section provides an explicit opportunity, at the end of what might have been a lengthy period of reflection, to consider the overall meaning of your personal narrative. It is not, however, an endpoint, as McAdams (1997: 264) makes clear:

      Identifying your personal myth should be seen as a life process. It cannot be fully achieved in a single interview. The questions I have posed should get you going. But don't stop with my questions. Plan to meet with your listener again. Follow up on interesting leads of the first interview. Make time to get to know yourself and to share yourself with the listener. The process is enjoyable in itself. And it promises to pay personal dividends in enhancing your understanding of the story you live by.

    In her book, Introducing Narrative Psychology, Michele Crossley (2000) gives detailed and very specific guidelines for exploring and analysing your own personal narrative using the schedule designed by Dan McAdams. She includes an extended extract from an interview in which she acted as listener for a 21-year-old male student, and then draws on this material in her account of how to analyse autobiographical inter-views. It would be well worth looking at Crossley's discussion if you plan to give a lot of time and attention to this activity. Alternatively, detailed suggestions, guidance and encouragement can be found in Tristine Rainer's (1998) Your Life as Story.

    Activity 12: Biographical Interviewing

    This activity represents another way of accessing life stories. Its guidelines are less specific than are those for Activity 11: Exploring your story, and it directed at biography rather than autobiography – you are the listener/interviewer rather than the speaker/interviewee.

    For many years I have used biographical interviewing as a basis for student assignments. It allows for a reflexive approach to the evaluation of concepts and models of the life course, and also provides a vehicle for considering a number of issues relevant to counselling practice and ethics. After completing a biographical interview, bring your thoughts together by addressing the following questions.

    • To what extent did the person's story demonstrate the stages or dynamics of the models discussed in this text?
    • How did the interviewee tell their story? What type of story was it? What themes were covered?
    • How did the client's age and life stage vis-à-vis my own age and life stage affect the interview and what did I learn from it?
    • How did various theoretical models and concepts help me understand this person?
    • How did this person help me understand the theoretical models and concepts?
    • How might the issues addressed in this activity, and in this book as a whole, inform my work as a counsellor?

    As already noted, a biographical interview is both similar to and different from counselling, and this exercise provides a vehicle for considering their overlaps and their distinctions. In so doing, understanding of the nature of counselling can be enhanced. A key difference between the two is that, in this activity it is, in effect, you who is the key client. Whilst parts of the interview might well be conducted as if the interviewee were the client, if you were not carrying out this exercise, the interview would not be taking place. The interview is, therefore, being conducted primarily for your benefit with the interviewee assisting you, rather than vice versa. You might like to consider how this affects the way you conducted the interview. If your interviewee had been a client, and if the interview had been a counselling session, would your way of working have been very different? Are there topics you would have pursued in greater depth? Are there boundary issues that you might have handled differently?

    The fact that you are the main beneficiary of the exercise does not, how-ever, mean that the interviewee gains nothing. Generally both interviewees and interviewers find the experience surprisingly rewarding – indicative, perhaps, of how in our daily life we do not often have the opportunity to explore and share our life story with an interested listener.


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