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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Counsellors’ experience of emphatic difficulty : a phenomenological study Scerri, Clarisa Sammut


The purpose of this study was to capture the lived experience of counsellors, when they encounter empathic difficulties with their clients. Five female counsellors were asked to reflect on situations from their counselling practice where they felt emotionally withdrawing from their clients or felt over-involved with the clients' concerns. A phenomenological approach was utilized as methodology to guide this study. The data collection strategies included a 3-hour workshop that introduced the topic to the participants, helped establish trust and rapport with the participants and helped normalize the participants' experiences. Then, 3 in-depth interviews were carried out with each participant. Each interview was audio-taped and transcribed. Furthermore, data collection was also supplemented by the researcher's field notes. The participants reviewed each transcript before the next interview, so that the transcripts themselves served as further reflective material for the participants. The process of thematic analysis yielded 4 major themes. These were: (a) experiencing countertransference reactions; (b) experiencing feelings of inadequacy and professional shame; (c) experiencing the need for self-care and burnout prevention and (d) experiencing psychological growth and transformation. These themes led to a number of implications for counselling practice as well as for future research. One major implication is that despite their training and competence, counsellors are ultimately as human and as vulnerable as their clients, having their own blind-spots, conflicts and personal experiences and because of this vulnerability, empathic difficulties are inevitable in a therapeutic setting. In this respect, the recognition of countertransference reactions is an important tool for counsellors' self-care and burnout prevention. Other implications concern supervision practices and curriculum concerns for counsellors' training programs.

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