Musings and Articles by CST Associates and Partners
What do we mean when we describe ouselves as "Professional"?
A therapist who wanted help with his application for BACP accreditation recently contacted me. He was young and keen, with a lot to say about his professional attitude, rigour and integrity. He used the word ‘professional’ so frequently I began to feel it was losing any real meaning. After acknowledging his commitment to a thoroughly professionalised approach to psychotherapy, I asked – more out of curiosity than exasperation – what the term actually meant to him personally.
I’ve asked myself before what it really means to me too. This self-enquiry can go deep, if you let it. First of all, I think it’s simply about the good feeling of doing something well. At another level, it’s to do with my self-respect and earning the respect of my peers. The mutuality of this esteem among my co-professionals relates to a deeper need to feel genuinely recognised and appreciated by others.
In that respect, gaining BACP’s public ‘seal of approval’ can have profound private significance. Others I know find the formalised and institutional aspects of professional practice Less significant than their personally felt sense of vocation as a helper or healer. One counsellor took the view that if bodies like BACP didn’t exist, she would be working with her clients in the same way she is now. She believed that the strength of her convictions about the meaning and purpose of her therapeutic work would not be diminished in a ‘de-professionalised universe’, as she put it. That’s quite a statement. What difference do you imagine it would make to you to be practising in such a world?
Useful provocations often arise in these reflective dialogues. For example: am I truly professional in my role or is it more truthful to say I behave in such a way that I appear to be professional? If that is indeed sometimes the
and courage. It’s a key professional task to find the time, make the effort and call up the courage.
You might agree that a sense of professionalism builds quite slowly at the start of a career – and ideally continues to grow for as long as the career lasts. I doubt if any of us ever achieve a complete understanding of our professional persona, which is then done and dusted. That sounds like a barrier to lifelong learning. We might even say that a steady commitment to continual learning is a defining trait of true professionalism.
Is CPD the only thing you need to sustain your professional identity and prevent it from becoming jaded? Reflecting in supervision on the current state of your working life, with all its ups and downs, is in itself a resource for the nurture of this identity. Maintaining a sound professional practice is not merely a bureaucratic, timeserving achievement. Any concept of professionalism is pointless unless it’s animated and energised by what we actually do in our relationships with clients, and how we conduct ourselves around the work. In this sense, the certificates on your wall – while hard won and proudly displayed – are only details.
To return to the therapist I mentioned at the start, his response was, in short, a hesitant yet brave declaration of his relentless perfectionism. He ‘confessed’ – his word – that he set such high standards for himself, he could hardly bear to discuss his difficult cases (which he called ‘failures’) in supervision. Another ‘confession’
was about his strong need to impress me. Here was an ambitious practitioner (and I have his permission to say this, slightly disguised) whose highly professionalist approach looked and felt to me like an elaborate performance. Naturally, he wasn’t exactly delighted to hear this when I gently let him know. What he had not yet realised, we might say, is that it is perfectly professional to confess to not being a perfect professional.