Training Narrative: Jeanne Watson

Simone de Beauvoir's novel, The Mandarins (1956/1960) first gave me the idea to pursue a career in psychology. One of the main characters, a psychiatrist was working with survivors of the Second World War. At the time I was a new immigrant to Canada and was involved in setting up an import company, but was not energized or excited by the work. I wanted to do something more meaningful, but had not yet found a focus, though I had been searching for a while. The work of analysis as described by de Beauvoir resonated with me and I began to explore my options. I looked into social work and then psychology. I remembered the advice of a guidance counsellor that one way to find your career was to look at the activities that you pursue naturally and independently. In other words how did I spend my free time? At sixteen, her words had perplexed me. There seemed no easy way to translate my interests into a career. However, when I began to consider psychotherapy as an option, it suddenly dawned on me that that much of my free time as a child and teenager had been listening to my mother's stories about growing up in Scotland and later her discontent and unhappiness with her life in South Africa with my father.

Intent on pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, I went back to York University to do a make-up year of psychology undergraduate courses, as my first degree had been in English and political studies. It was during this period that I met Laura Rice. Laura taught a course in client-centered therapy that seemed to fit with the way I viewed counseling. It made sense and corresponded with my understanding of the change process. I remember the first time I was introduced to Systematic Evocative Unfolding as a technique. It was so exciting, I felt so alive, like a detective searching out the clue that would shed light on a mysterious event. Again, it seemed to fit and flow for me. After completing the courses, I was accepted to the graduate program in psychology at York to work with Laura as my research and clinical supervisor.

With Laura's teaching I learned to listen, to probe, and to seek an understanding of each client's unique perspective, resources and life course. I learned to walk with them as they searched for the answers to their problems, I learned to shine a spotlight in places that they may have overlooked, but I never allowed myself to think I had the answers to resolve their own special set of life problems.

I had learned early that advising people in specific courses of action was pointless. As a young adolescent, I recall listening raptly as my mother shared her memories and current discontents. I remember earnestly trying to help her find solutions, urging her to particular courses of action, none of which she ever followed. In retrospect, I saw that my solutions addressed the tip of the iceberg. But I was too young and naive to realize the extent of her problems at the time. She did not have the psychological or material resources to implement my suggestions. Later on, reflecting on what I had done I came to realize that helping others did not mean giving them advice. Perhaps the best gift of all was my rapt attention. The possibility of being blind to what others really need and feel was driven home once again during my first internship. A young client was experiencing considerable distress in her relationship with her boyfriend. She complained bitterly about him, saying that he had disappointed her and was quite unsuitable. I was certain that she would choose to end the relationship. Yet after returning from a brief vacation, she informed me that she was going to marry him. Once again I had only glimpsed of part of the picture. Her positive feelings had been submerged by the weight of the negative.

After reading Carl Rogers and learning with Laura, I became a firm adherent to a client-centered philosophy. However, I did tentatively experiment with other approaches. One of my internships was with a psychodynamic practitioner. I was nervous, uncertain about how to interpret or deal with transference issues. I was sure that my approach would be criticized as unsophisticated. However, to my surprise, I learned that empathic conjectures were good interpretations. I did not have to alter my style after all. I remained committed to a client-centered approach through graduate school, with some additional training in family therapy, specifically systemic and strategic approaches. While in practice I was very client-centered, theoretically my essentially humanistic approach was influenced by a number of different psychodynamic writers, including Horney, Sullivan and Bowlby, as well as experiential writings on the family (Whitaker, Satir). These approaches would continue to inform my thinking and formulations of clients' difficulties.

My purist approach to individual therapy was challenged when I became involved in the depression project funded by the National Institute of Mental Health at York University with Laura Rice and Les Greenberg. I was skeptical of Gestalt approaches. I viewed them as too challenging, too confrontational with clients. A Gestalt approach seemed to lack the respect, the gentleness that I so prized about the client-centered way. However, I was aware that Leslie Greenberg had worked to integrate a client-centered relationship philosophy with more emotionally-focused Gestalt techniques. I observed how he and Laura had developed a marker-guided approach to therapy and started training their students. Having learned to use Systematic Evocative Unfolding effectively, I began to see the potential of the other techniques to facilitate clients' access to their emotional experience during the session. As long as I remained empathically attuned to the client, I felt I could use these techniques to enhance my therapeutic approach. Initially I struggled. I was fearful of taking over a session, of losing my listening ear. It was not easy to deliberately take charge in the session. I knew how to focus a client with reflections, but to ask them to change chairs and engage in activities that they did not initiate, was very foreign at first. Gradually, it became easier, once I developed the roadmap and was no longer concerned about what to do at every little curve in the road.

Today I easily blend client-centered and experiential techniques; a more recent change has been a greater use of myself in the session, especially humor. I am also much more attentive to the working alliance and especially sensitive to ruptures or times when my clients seem resistant. I still always try to follow their lead. There are times when my clients are reluctant to do experiential tasks. Some feel that the tasks interfere with their own processing style. At these times I work with them using empathic responding and focusing techniques, following Beutler et al.'s (1991) suggestion of supportive approaches for resistant clients. However, I remain alert for times when experiential markers are highly salient and will suggest an experiential task to my clients when these appear. If clients are open to working with experiential tasks, and these can be seamlessly woven into the fabric of the therapy, and we have a good working alliance, then we do.


      de Beauvoir, S. (1956/1960). The mandarins: A novel (Trans. Leonard M. Friedman). New York: World Publishing Company.

©2004 Robert Elliott, Jeanne Watson, Rhonda Goldman, and Leslie Greenberg