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But I’m person-centred. Isn’t this enough?

by LJ
Published on 27 October 2021

LJ is a white non-binary person-centred therapist living and working in the UK with clients who we might term LGBTQ+ or GSRD


Whilst this blog may be read by anyone anywhere in the world, I write this as a white British therapist living and working in the UK, and this is where my experience and expertise lie. I recognise that not everything I speak to here will feel relevant to all.

As person-centred practitioners, we try to hold to the concept of Rogers' (1957) six necessary and sufficient conditions. A central tenet of those conditions is that of empathy; we walk ‘as if’ in the shoes of another. And as therapists we are very used to working in this way. We work very hard to be empathic with clients, no matter what the topics they bring. Some clients and/or topics feel somewhat easy to do this with. Others perhaps not so much.

It is tempting to think that because we are person-centred, that this is enough by itself for our clients. I speak as a person-centred therapist who is trans and who has been a client of different person-centred therapists. And my experience is that it is not enough. This is something that Rogers also comments on, as has been referenced in other blog posts in this series.

No matter who we are in the world, we are situated within certain discourses and certain rhetorics. We breathe in messages about what it means to have gender. What it means to ‘be’ certain genders. What sex is, what ‘gender identity’ is, and the ways in which genders and gender identities ‘should’ be portrayed. Many who are cis have not really had to question these identities, and some really have. It is not as simple as a trans/cis divide – some people who are cis (that is, identify with the sex assigned at birth) have had to ask these questions of self in the same way that most (if not all) who are trans have done. But for some of us, we have never had to consider ‘gender’. We just have one.

If we have never had to consider our relationship to gender, to question whether something is right for us, whether a gender (and gender identity) fits, and whether we want to change some or all of our lives in response to that knowledge, then it is going to be difficult for us to accurately empathise with the person in the client chair in that position.

Consider your gender (trans people, you can sit this one out if you want. Or not – as you wish). How would you explain your gender to someone if you couldn’t make reference to your genitalia? How would you convince someone you are the gender you are if you cannot reference your physiology? I’m not saying it’s impossible – trans people basically do this all the time. But if you’re cis, you probably haven’t had to. And the idea that someone might be asked to do this over and over just to hear the correct pronouns might be new to you.

That’s what we call cis privilege. It’s not inherently bad to have privilege. Most people reading will have some form of privilege – I’m white. That’s one layer of privilege I have. Privilege means that that aspect of our identity is not something we usually have to consider. I never have to worry about being white when I apply for a counselling job. A Black counsellor might well wonder whether to put their photo on to their counselling profile. Cis privilege then, is not having to think about gender, and the impacts of that on their lives, and the lives of others.

So you’re reading and thinking ‘ok, so I have cis privilege. And I know I don’t want to harm trans clients. Now what?’

  • I’m inviting you to keep doing what you’ve hopefully started doing if you’ve made it this far. Examine the dominant understanding of gender in your cultural and/or community contexts, and recognise that this is only one way of understanding gender.
  • Reflexively engage with your own position in relation to gender, and the relationship between this and your other intersections (race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, disability, etc)
  • Become aware of your implicit biases, and the structural inequalities in your wider society, and reflect on these in training and perhaps through contemplative practice (Barker 2015).
  • Engage with intersectional understandings of how queerness is situated within intersecting social identities and dynamics of privilege and oppression, and consider bringing this awareness into the room with clients.
  • Be aware of the impact of gender, sexuality, and relationship normativity, stigma, and discrimination in the lives of marginalised clients, particularly the legacy of pathologising therapeutic practice.
  • Be mindful of the power dynamics between client and practitioner, and the potential of reinforcing social structures of oppression (Proctor 2017)
  • Engage in CPD and reading on queerness if you want to work with trans clients. If you’re trans, this includes you too. None of us are immune to those societal messages and we all have work to unpick.
  • It is enough, to be person-centered, if we are truly being a person-centered practitioner and we are congruently exploring ourselves in relation to what our clients are bringing, and recognising when we might need further information and support.

For me the bottom line is this: If I know little about the world that my client comes to me with, no matter what that world is, it is for me to go educate myself on that, to make sure that I can be my person-centred self, truly empathically in their world.

References and further reading

Barker, M.-J. (2015) ‘Depression and/or Oppression? Bisexuality and Mental Health’. Journal of Bisexuality 15 (3), 369–384

Hope, S. (2019) Person-centred counselling for trans and gender diverse people: a practical guide. Jessica Kingsley 

Proctor, G. (2017) The Dynamics of Power in Counselling and Psychotherapy: Ethics, Politics and Practice. 2nd edn. PCCS Books

Rogers, C. (1957) ‘The Necessary and Sufficieent Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change’. Journal of Consulting Psychology [online] 21 (2), 95–103

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