‘Clients’ experiences of relational depth during counselling sessions; and how these experiences have influenced life outside the therapeutic relationship’
Rowan Poppy Imolc
MSc Counselling Psychology
Mearns and Cooper (2005,p36) Relational defined depth within the therapeutic relationship, as:
“A state of profound contact and engagement between two people, in which each person is fully real with the Other, and able to understand and value the other’s experiences at a high level.”
It is an identifiable, specific phenomenon that occurs on occasion within the counselling relationship between client and counsellor. Studies have been conducted which investigated the conditions that seem to be in place when moments of relational depth are experienced (Mearns and Cooper 2005, Cooper and Knox 2010, McMIllan and McLeod 2006) and the experience of relational depth has been explored from the point of view of the therapist (Cooper 2005, Mearns and Cooper, 2005), and more recently there has been some research into how the client experienced relational depth (McMillan and McLeod 2006, Knox 2008); relational depth is a relatively new area of study.
I decided to write my dissertation on the subject of relational depth after a lecture we had on the Masters course at Keele University. I understood that relational depth that was being described as something I had experienced, not in the context of a counselling session, but with a friend who had been a mental health nurse and was a trained counsellor. I had had the same deep all encompassing connection with my friend during our discussions, I had experienced qualities of altered consciousness, feelings of joy, being completely understood and had an awareness of thinking at a higher level and of being in the moment. The experiences had happened on many occasions over fifteen years and I associated them as only being possible with my friend.
As he had died less than a year before the course started, grief was still fresh because such an important person in my life had passed. I also felt grief that I might have lost access to the mysterious plane of altered consciousness and the intense connections that were possible with other human beings. Before the course started I didn’t know that others had also discovered such a deep level of connection, let alone that it was being studied at academic level. So even before I started my research I had gained a huge amount of knowledge and self satisfaction such connections were possible between other people and had been labelled as relational depth in the area of psychotherapy.
I wanted to know if clients’ experiences were as special and important to them as mine had been to me. I also wanted to know if they felt that they had benefited in such a huge way as I had from meeting someone at such a level, the most profound, close, connection to another person I have ever had.
Had they learnt to find that higher state of consciousness, place of peace and calm, feeling of personal power, and sereneness that I feel I can reach now by myself as a result of joining with someone else in such a way as relational depth?
Reviewing the Literature
Rogers himself spoke of the importance of presence within the therapeutic relationship. Optimal levels of therapist states of being, relatedness, and awareness have been given a single label ‘presence’.
“I find that when I am the closest to my inner, intuitive self –when perhaps I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me–when perhaps I am in a slightly altered state of consciousness in the relationship, then whatever I do seems to be full of healing. Then simply my presence is releasing and helpful. At those moments, it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself, and has become part of something larger. Profound growth and healing are present”, (In Baldwin, 2000, p.36).
Mearns and Cooper in their book ‘Working at Relational Depth in Counselling and Psychotherapy’ explain the mutuality of experiencing relational depth due to the fact that it cannot be divided easily into client and counsellor separate experiences. Instead their experience is interwoven, perceptions often shared; individual experience seems to have been fused together into accepting, understanding, shared experienced which occurs with a sense of living in the present; here and now.
Researchers (McMillan and McLeod,2006 Knox 2008, Cooper 2005) have carried out qualitative research to attempt to capture aspects of an experience that are often found for the counsellor and the client to be moments of intense and unusual experience. Cooper (2005) studied the experience of therapists whilst they were engaged with clients in moments that they described as relational depth. He found participants had similar self-experiences which included greater perceptual clarity, a sense of immersion, feelings of aliveness and satisfaction. They experienced the relationship with the client at those moments with mutuality and often with closeness.
Knox (2008) carried out a study that invited 14 participants who were predominantly person-centred clients to explore their experiences of relational depth, she found that clients also reported feeling alive and energised, present and focussed. In addition Knox also found that clients felt high levels of self-worth, they felt empowered and validated, some also had feelings of fearlessness and felt ‘bigger’ or ‘more’ in some way. They described feelings of heightened awareness and vibrancy which highlighted the ‘peak experience’ within the overall event.
McMillan and McLeod (2006) also studied the experience of relational depth of clients, they found also that most participants found the experience to be unique, offering moments of insight, and some even felt that they had a sense that it was a life changing process. They experienced an ‘altered awareness’ and a sense of flow that was difficult to put into words.
Methodology of my reserch
The advantage of qualitative methodology is the rich in-depth description of an aspect of experience that can be recorded and studied; it was the phenomenological details of the experience that I was interested in exploring in my study.
I needed a qualitative approach which would help me tease out a rich description of participants’ experiences; to investigate their inner worlds of consciousness, emotion, perception and thoughts, as well as their interpretations of any effects the experience might have outside therapy sessions.
I settled on using the qualitative approach Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as the basis for my methodology and data analysis which is committed to the examination of how people make sense of their life experiences (Smith et al. 2009). This fitted my question. I wanted a detailed description of the experience of relational depth, I also want to find out how participants make sense of the experience within the broader context of themselves and their lives. IPA research aims to engage with individuals’ experiences that they consider themselves to be major in their lives and it seemed that relational depth could be this kind of experience.
I settled on using the qualitative approach Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) as the basis for my methodology and data analysis which is committed to the examination of how people make sense of their life experiences (Smith et al. 2009). This fits my question. Not only do I want a detailed description of the experience of relational depth, I also want to find out how participants make sense of the experience within the broader context of themselves and their lives. IPA research aims to engage with individuals’ experiences that they consider themselves to be major in their lives and it seemed that relational depth could be this kind of experience.
The disadvantages of choosing fellow students as participants are that having attended the lecture and hearing about others’ experiences of relational depth, their own interpretation of personal experience may be affected. They may have had the opportunity to mentally ‘fit’ their own experiences with aspects of others’ distorting the memory of their own. However, I felt it was important to trust the interviewees to make sense of their own experiences.
Clare (pilot interviewee) was therefore not a counsellor trainee. A female, in her forties, she was discussing experiences she had had with a person-centred counsellor about twenty years ago.
Michael was a student counsellor, male, also in his forties, describing person-centred counselling experiences he had had as a client about twenty five years ago.
Steve was a student counsellor, male, in his twenties, who was describing client experiences with a person-centred counsellor occurring about six months ago.
Nathalie was a female student counsellor in her forties and was describing her experiences with a person-centred counsellor which happened about six months ago too.
I wrote to three researchers who have carried out studies on relational depth asking them advice on the kinds of questions I might ask to tease out rich descriptions of the relational depth experiences of my subjects. They were very generous; I received their advice and I felt more confident in formulating my own semi-structured interview. The interview was in three general sections the first being around the relationship between counsellor and client previous to the experience of relational depth, secondly I asked questions about the experience itself, and finally asked about how the experience had affected life afterwards. The questions encouraged the participant to struggle through finding ways to explain their experience but also offered the possibility of using metaphor and imagery to explain a phenomenon which may lack vocabulary. I used counselling skills such as reflection and the core conditions, to allow the participants to feel safe enough to immerse themselves in their experience. I allowed for up to one and half hours, which left ample space and time to reach the depth needed to relive the experience as fully as possible.
After analysis I found a total of five major themes with various sub-themes.. It would have been impossible to present all themes and sub-themes thoroughly and do justice to them in the study, so I decided to focus on three of the themes. The reason for choosing to present the three I selected was to avoid covering areas which have already been covered in depth in other studies. I aimed to add to the body of knowledge that had already been found on the subject of relational depth by introducing themes and results which had not been discussed in much detail previously. I however presented aspects of the experience of relational depth which each interviewee felt were the most significant parts of the experience for them, whether they had been discussed in other studies or not. I felt it would show a lack respect as well as miss the phenomenological essence of their accounts if I were not to present what they felt to be key to their experiences.
My first participant provided a pilot interview. She is different to the other participants in that she is the only participant who is not a trainee counsellor. Clare had been in long term therapy for about a year when she experienced what she recognises as relational depth. She had experienced a person-centred therapeutic relationship which had offered her warmth, acceptance and a close bond with her counsellor.
On one occasion a definite ‘other state of being’ swept over her and stayed with her for a short period of time. Clare explained the experience in great detail and acknowledges her vivid memory of the experience even though it happened many years ago.
She had feelings of being encompassed, warm and enveloped; as if she had ‘light in her heart’. Conversation with her counsellor became more truthful, and her thoughts more focussed and free from her usual anxieties and self-doubt. She experienced ‘just being’. Clare interprets the consequences of her experience as altering her understanding of herself as well as relationships with others. She is left with the ability to link back to feeling an echo of her experience when alone, which can bring on the feelings of confidence and reduced anxiety.
My second participant was also describing an experience of relational depth that had happened about twenty-five years ago. He was a trainee counsellor at the time of the research but describes an experience that he had of relational depth that happened years before during his first experience of personal therapy. He had found himself up against a wall in his life; he felt blocked and for this reason began personal therapy with a person-centred therapist.
For this participant, who I will call Michael, relational depth also occurred within the context of a welcoming relationship offering warmth and acceptance and a sense of being valued. In addition to the underlying relationship, Michael explained that a moment of extreme coincidence of events triggered the experience of relational depth which he remembers and shared with clarity even after so much time has elapsed. Michael goes on to explain that the whole experience marked a complete change in his understanding and knowledge of his own self, as well as his life’s direction. The depth of connection to himself and his counsellor at the time seems to have triggered a new found ability to connect at depth to himself, others, his own creativity, as well as aspects of nature. Michael describes what was for him an illuminating, pivotal moment which upturned his philosophical foundations and his understanding of himself and his life.
Steve is the first of the younger participants. At the time of the research he was a counsellor trainee and experienced his moments of relational depth as a client within a counselling session on campus; his therapist was an experienced therapist but also taking the Masters course. Steve describes the comfortable, relaxed accepting nature of his counsellor and the fact that they were very in tune with each other. He describes his counsellor as being very present, yet allowing plenty of space for him to venture deeper into his own self and explore his deepest material. He describes his experience as an unlocking of deep, powerful emotions. He remembers the emotions as coming over him like a big wave. He was very emotional and tearful, yet there was a positivity and clarity around his state of being. He felt a release of tension and had powerful realisations. His perceptions of time and the space around him altered during that time. Steve felt a powerful connection to his brother during the session and his counsellor also acknowledged a vivid perception of someone else being present in the session room. Steve felt that this experienced washed away everything that came before it, and felt a huge sense of personal power. This experience happened only five months ago and Steve feels he is still coming to terms with his experience and trying to understand any changes that might have happened as a result of his relational depth experience. However, he does feel that his experience was the beginning of a series of profound changes in his being which have occurred over the last months.
My fourth and last participant I will call Natalie. She is also a counselling student and has been having counselling sessions with an experienced private counsellor. Natalie felt an intense connection with her counsellor a few months ago which she felt sometimes bordered on being of an obsessive nature. She experienced relational depth at a moment when her counsellor self-disclosed some information about herself. This seemed to trigger a deep fusion of connection between the two. For Natalie the experience was an intense sensation, shared between herself and her counsellor. She felt they were in a bubble of non-sexual love, where all barriers were completely down, allowing a connection which, for Natalie, was sacred and magical.
There was a high level of trust, security and safety within their ‘bubble’, and Natalie didn’t want anyone to tap into it. At least at the moment Natalie doesn’t find the experience to be life changing. She believes she has always been the type to enter into deep relationships even though to date, this experience of relational depth is unique. She does feel a strong sense of protection about it; she doesn’t want others to taint it through not understanding or ‘meeting’ her if she was to discuss it. She feels honoured to take part in the study because she is able to share her precious experience in the safety of someone respecting the importance and understanding her.
Theme 1 An Intense and profound experience of depth
Relational depth seemed to be an altered state of being that swept over three of the participants. Clare felt that relational depth swept over her like a steam roller. She said: “It didn’t suddenly come, it didn’t drift, it was kind of a whoosh [movement pushing her hand away from her body] thing.” (Clare lines 61-62)
Michael said it was a mind blowing, massive boom of connection; he was stunned. For Steve it was an unlocking of powerful emotions which hit him like a big wave.
There is an intense phenomenological alteration to their usual state of being. The internal experience was so all encompassing that Steve said that the four walls of counselling room itself didn’t matter anymore And Natalie said: “I felt like the house could have broken down and it wouldn’t have mattered.” (Natalie line, 74-76)
The overwhelming new state of being seemed to be a separation from the usual world. Clare experienced relational depth as intense, warm, encompassing and enveloping, she was separated from the rest of the world in a bubble. Natalie used exactly the same metaphor, she felt she was in a bubble and didn’t want anyone tapping into it. She also said: “(It was) warm and soothing, almost like we were in a different world like not terrestrial”
Another characteristic of being in the experience of relational depth was that perceptions seemed to alter in different ways for participants. For example, Clare found sound was ‘muffled’ and felt confused about how much time had passed during her experience. Steve also found that sound had altered. He heard sounds in lower octaves as if he was under water or about to drift into unconsciousness, he also had the sensation that he could ‘hear the air’:
“… sound coming in was a bit, you get that kind of bassy, it’s almost like you can kind of hear the air, not like ringing, but you can hear something in your ears, you can almost hear it, like a blur. .(Steve lines, 85-87)
He also found that his perception of time altered. For him time slowed down, seconds seemed like minutes. For Natalie, time stood still; she couldn’t say for sure how long the experienced lasted She had a strange sensation that she and her counsellor were physically closer than they actually were, even though they weren’t touching, she felt a feeling that her counsellor was hugging her somehow.
A powerful new state of being is sweeping over participants at times altering their perception, yet it is interesting to note that within this experience there seems to be a sub-theme of ‘clarity and truth’. Clare felt that conversation with her counsellor became more truthful, she felt more focussed and had clear thoughts without the interference she was used to.
“It was just in kind of normal conversation, that just seemed to get more truthful.” (Clare, line 51)
When asked how she was feeling at the time, she said: “Released really and focussed” (Pilot interview lines 72). She also said: “A lot of the time, I find it difficult to think clearly and feel clearly about things … not to let other little things just kind of, put my thoughts off … I felt that I was complete” (Clare, lines 76-79)
Steve spoke of the contrast between massive uncontrollable emotion whilst also feeling in control.
“I was so overwhelmed at being there, at being wherever I was but not in any way that conflicted with what I was thinking about.”(Steve, lines 202-203)
In addition to the clarity of thought Clare also felt a release from anxiety and self doubt, she felt confident and at peace “I could just be. Without anything niggling, that’s it, the ability just to be” (Clare lines 81-83)
It was also very interesting to note the frequency participants used the similar metaphor of light to describe aspects of their experience. Clare said: “if you can have light in your heart, it was kind of light in your heart. The finish of worry” (Clare lines 37-38). She also described her counsellor using the imagery of light and being illuminated: “(He) seemed to have light all under his skin during that time, he was like illuminated kind of.” (Clare, lines 204- 208)
Natalie evoked a vivid image to describe the relational depth connection between herself and her counsellor: “… a golden warm ball, or light sunlight something just like floating and just carefully giving it to each other. Like she would just carefully touch me and I would carefully touch her, I’ve just never experienced it. (99-101).
Participants were describing powerful emotions as part of the experience and the seemed to be on the whole positive feelings. For example Clare said: “Things kind of shifted … in a way that kind of made that comfort more intense, it was a kind of a warmth … all over and kind of a cuddle but without a cuddle. You know a sensation of been enveloped. And I suppose now, I guess the feeling of a baby, you know when you’re all encompassed by your mother? Everything’s fine and you’re fine” (Clare lines 31-35)
She is linking her feelings to the warmth and comfort that a child feels in the safety of a parent child relationship. She also described joy and awe surrounding the absolute release and fulfilment she felt: “… once I was in that state of depth, just joy. Just like awe! This is what it’s meant to be like! Just release and joy and peace. Pause [10 seconds]. Kind of not wanting it to go” (Clare, lines 86-88)
Steve also describes feelings of joy attached to relational depth. He explains that he explains that his experience was emotion but it was a good thing combining sadness, pain, pride, love – a combination of deep emotions, yet on the whole overwhelming positive.
Natalie’s main emotion was a huge sense of love for her counsellor: “… to have such love for someone, who is like a stranger.” (Natalie, lines 113 – 114). “I just had so much love for her, my heart was pouring out.”
For Michael He explains: “it was the turning point for me and her because I really felt this massive sense of connection,”(Michael, lines 86-87). He added: “it was almost like too much of a coincidence really, it sort of stopped me and took me off into a completely different direction.” (Michael lines 130-131). “This was almost like a different way of looking at life, I can only describe it as metaphysical, well it was spiritual in that sense” (Michael, lines 135)
Natalie felt her experience was really magical. She had difficulty explaining. She described it has being: “Just really holy, very holy, sacred…” (92).
Theme 3 – Connections
After reading current work around relational depth it is obvious that the intense connection between counsellor and client is central to the experience. As I will show, my participants describe the intensity of the connection they felt with their counsellor during the relational depth, but for some, there was a massive sense of connection to self or others within the experience.
I am not discussing in this study the theme 1 (appendix E of my study) which explores the conditions in place within the counselling relationship leading up to relational depth. I will be presenting participants explanations of the connections during the relational depth experiences.
Clare’s experience was very interesting in that she describes two instances as relational depth. Her experiences, although very similar in some ways also have some aspects that are dissimilar. For example, she explains that the first time she experienced relational depth: “normal conversation just seemed to get more truthful. We drew together and kind of rolled over.” (Clare line 15-16).
She goes on to explain the intensity of her experience as mentioned in the above theme, yet when asked about how she was experiencing her counsellor at that time, she said: “It was quite insular … he was in the same place but separate from it … he wasn’t widely involved.” (Clare lines 20-24).
Although she said that subsequent sessions made her value her counsellor a lot more: “I valued him more because I could see that he was involved in me going to that place.” (Clare, lines 33-34).
She explains that the second time she had an experience of relational depth her counsellor was much more involved. She didn’t feel by herself: “We were able to keep exploring different things while I was in the really peaceful state, and it was a fantastic way to discuss things we felt it was like soul to soul, really pure communication” (Clare, lines198-200). She even describes the way that her counsellor stepped inside what she refers to as her ‘bubble’: “… he stepped inside the bubble thing that I was in, and when he stepped inside the bit of him that came through was really big” (Clare, lines 202-203)
Michael struggles to explain the nature of the connections that he experienced. He uses the metaphor that: “it was just a bridge, a bridge between two people or a strand or a string or a rope or some kind of connection.” (Michael lines 301-302). He acknowledges that the relational depth connection with his counsellor was deeper than the connection with a partner or a friend. He also says: “Maybe it was a bridge or a connection or something that was almost an invisible thing, which changed my life really for ever.” (Michael lines 312-314)
So as well as the connection to his counsellor Michael describes a connection to something else, an invisible thing, that was life changing for him, something difficult to define or understand. Michael also felt reconnected to artistic interests from his youth and to his natural environment: “I also made some reconnections to when I was younger. Things that I’d explored as a kid like art, music, poetry. Those things were actually put to one side, because I can’t be that in this world but actually now I’ve had this experience, maybe I can be.” (Michael lines 443-446)
When asked about things that had changed since his experienced he said: “The way I interact with that world. Like yesterday for instance, yesterday for me was the first day of spring, it might not have been but for me it felt like that.” This demonstrates a feeling of being connected to phenomenological shifts in the natural cycle.
Similarly to Clare, Steve explains a deep connection to his counsellor as he went to the experience of relational depth, but also explains how he seemed to become more distant during the experience: “As the session went on, it was like he (the counsellor) was there less and less. … I can’t quite remember what he was saying because the focus had switched from what the counsellor was saying to myself”
In addition, Steve recounts that he felt a particularly strong connection to his brother within the experience, a feeling that brought him closer than ever to empathising with him and understanding him. He also remembers being less and less focussed on the counsellor even though he was with him and felt at one with him, there was however more focus on himself. “I was really connecting with my brother … I was connecting with someone that wasn’t in the room … The counsellor actually commented that it felt like they were in the room” (Steve, lines 149-150)
“It was mind blowing … I was connected, so with him, and the fact that I could feel that same thing. It was like, it made me feel really weak and it made me feel really strong at the same time … But the fact that I was able to produce an emotion that strong made me feel strong.” (Steve, lines 168-174)
Natalie’s experience was absolutely centred on her intense relationship with her counsellor. The experience of the relationship and the connection she felt within it were the essential points to the experience. She describes a loving caring non-sexual connection. “I can remember tears rolling down my face, and I was just so completely with her”
As described earlier in this presentation, Natalie felt her connection with her counsellor was magical She felt she wanted to protect it and not let it be tainted by those who wouldn’t understand its sacred importance to her. There was also the imagery of the lump of gold which used to describe the rich glowing connection and exchange between two souls.
“…a golden warm ball, or light sunlight something just like floating and just carefully giving it to each other. Like she would just carefully touch me and I would carefully touch her, I’ve just never experienced it.” (Nathalie, lines 99-101)
“I was just scared that anything would interrupt, I didn’t want anything to touch. We were in this bubble, I didn’t want anyone tapping on the bubble, I didn’t want anything to touch it.” (Natalie lines 131-133)
Natalie also using the metaphor of being in a bubble, and for her, her therapist was definitely in there with her.
Theme 5 – Since the experience increased personal growth and change
Therapeutic benefits of the experience
Clare explained earlier that the experience of relational depth had, at the time, taken her to a more calm peaceful part of herself. She also said that she felt generally more at peace with herself in general, afterwards. She felt that her behaviour and attitude also changed, she accepts what happens to her more readily and feels she gained maturity and is calmer. She is now more confident at work, has more self belief and feels safer, which for Clare was a huge improvement.
When asked about changes in herself after the experience she says: “Massively. Really, really, important and loads and loads of effects … about making things possible and giving me confidence in myself.” (Clare, line 215-217)
For Michael, therapy became deeper and more challenging after the experience. It became more about him, who he was and where he was going. He also noticed that the relationship between his counsellor and himself, as well as the nature of the sessions, altered: “… it just lifted the whole way the relationship was for the forthcoming session.” (Michael Lines 244-245). “subsequent sessions wouldn’t have been the same if it hadn’t have been for that one event.”
He also felt that he had been stuck in his life before the experience of relational depth, he found his own way forward after it. “Where as before I’d been banging my head against a brick wall, against this barrier and I was then ok with that, I could find my own way and I did find my own way.” (Michael lines 65-67).
Natalie feels an increased amount of trust in her counsellor since her experience with her and has a feeling of safety and that everything will be okay. “I feel I could trust her with my life. But then again, I know she can’t save me.” (Natalie, line 259)
Effects on self and life of the experience
Clare’s sense of her life differently after the experience: “Knowing that it’s possible that inner peace, that peaceful state is that safeness, that I’d experienced, safety.” (Clare lines 220-221)
Michael explains that the experience was a very clear turning point in his life. He understands his relational depth experience as a signpost, a guide. It got him out of the fog; he had been up against a wall and now he knew which direction to go in. He feels that it has resonated and permeated his life since. He went from a fixed view to a spiritual view and caused a directional shift, and he developed a different way of looking at things.
“I certainly changed philosophically and there was an 18 month possibly 2 year process of a slow transitional phase to me becoming closer to I suppose what I am now, changing my path.” (Michael lines 215-217)
He feels that he is more open and susceptible to possibilities, more open to philosophical and spiritual questions. He explains that he thinks in a new way, he lost some of his rational thinking, has taken on new roles and moved towards self fulfilment. He interacts with the world more and allows movement and change.
“… it shifted my entire thinking. It sent me off on another direction, which led me to where I am now … also it opened me up to those types of experiences, not only in the work that I do but also in the wider world.”(Michael lines 271-274)
For Steve, his relational depth experience didn’t feel like a pivotal moment, but he feels he is changing slowly. He started to feel more self aware five months ago and he feels like this experience two months ago is a key part of his progress ; it was an unlocking of his depth, it got the ball rolling. He is acknowledging and realising his own personal power and his emotions feel deeper. He explained that it wasn’t life changing as such, but it changed him personally, and the process is still going on. He is finding himself and his inner strength.
“It didn’t feel like a pivotal moment … It felt like a huge emotional moment … it I think any changes that have come from it have been kind of general if you know what I mean, changes have been gradual. But five months age, I was different to who I am now. Maybe that was the start of it, maybe that was the unlocking of deeper, deeper things.” (Steve lines 326-330) “I’m still realising it now. I’m still getting my head round it.”(Steve line262)
He also feels that there have been changes in him and that he is open to deep experiences and emotion: “I think I’ve had different waves of realisation that have come up since but not quite on that same level, so maybe I’m just a bit more open to that now. (Steve lines 302-303)
Natalie doesn’t feel that her experience changed her, what she does feel is a wish to experience relational depth again in her life.
“I would love it to happen often, and to be able to live my life, it’s almost like a Buddhist thing, to be able to love and be in the moment. And for me, I don’t think that’s possible, I think outside influences influence me way too much.” (Natalie lines 293-295)
It’s as though she feels that if she were to have more experiences of relational depth, she may be able to attain some aspects of the experience in her daily life, yet for now she doubts that will be so:
Connections after the experience
Another interesting aspect of the experience of relational depth is that participants explain that they the are somehow connected to the state of being they were in during their experience, and that having experienced it once they were more susceptible to have similar experiences afterwards. It is almost as if they have discovered a part of themselves, where they can link into even years after the initial experience.
Clare explains that the experience left a residue afterwards. A link remained to this ‘place’ of depth. She had a relational depth experience repeat a few times. She seeks this place since and is able to achieve it alone, to a lower level, described as echoes. “I have kind of echoes of that peace, I can kind of remember the feeling and sometimes I can get a little roll of it, but on a tiny scale sometimes, but not with the same intensity”(Clare lines 223-224)
She feels at times she can find that place intentionally: “You know what sometimes you have to do to get echoes of that feeling again, and you intentionally seek that.” (Clare lines 239-240)
Michael also has had similar experiences of relational depth since. He also has reconnected to the creativity that he associates with his childhood, for example by taking up poetry, music and art, he feels for these reasons he found himself back.
Steve has had similar waves since but they feel less strong. During the interview he felt that by discussing it again he was drifting into a similar state: “its happening a bit now but not on the same level.”(Steve line 96).
As others have found in the passed, my results showed that clients were in a safe within their therapeutic relationship and were offered various conditions (Theme 1 appendix E my study), including Rogers’ core conditions (1959) when they had their relational depth experience. As participants entered into the relational depth, I found that one of two things could happen.
Either the client would plunge into an insular experience of deep connection to aspects of his own self, the counsellor seeming to drift into the background or the client would fall into the experience with the counsellor, experience high levels of connection to both the counsellor and deep aspects of their own being. It was interesting that one participant explores two different occurrences of relational depth with her counsellor, and actually experienced these two differing ways of experiencing relational depth. She describes being warm and comfortable in her own bubble the first time, her counsellor being in the background, yet still with her. As she experienced relational depth the second time she describes her counsellor stepping into her bubble to join her, and they experienced an intense connection. I believe that this finding opens up the question of whether these experiences can all be labelled as the same concept; are they both relational depth experiences? My participant certainly interpreted both her experiences as being examples of relational depth; perhaps then some relational depth experiences can have their main focus on connection to ones own inner self experience, whilst others have the counsellor/client central to the experience throughout. I believe more research is need to analyse clients experiences of relational depth to determine whether these two different ways of experience relational depth occur frequently in other studies; perhaps more knowledge of the counsellors role in the clients experience of relational depth can be understood. Are all relational depth experiences primarily relational by definition? Or is it that the connection to, and experience within the clients own self the most essential point in some cases? In the case of Michael, Steve, and Clare (in one example) in my study, I would say that it was the latter.
In this study I have also attempted to make a bit more sense of the processes which might be occurring during the experience of relational depth, as well as explain effects of the experience on clients outside the therapy room in their lives. I have discussed two theoretical approaches in terms of how they might explain what is happening during the experience of relational depth.
I have explained person-centred centred theory, as the underlying theory to explain therapeutic movement occurring in these moments. Is it possible that relational depth experiences are what Rogers’ would have called part of the actualising process, which is expected to happen in person-centred therapy sessions? Perhaps relational depth is an experience where a flood of previously denied experiences enter into the consciousness of the client in a much more intense, powerful wave that usual; therefore causing some perception changes in the client? I argue that although person centred theory fits to some extent the therapeutic moment that occurs as a result of the experience of relational depth, I don’t believe it manages to incorporate all aspects of it. Participants themselves interpret their experience as mysterious, the spiritual, and other worldly, so I discussed the similarities of the experience of relational depth with ideas from transpersonal psychotherapy, such as peak experiences. The way peak experiences are explained shows a huge amount of overlap with aspects of relational depth my participants described.
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