In the world we live in today, everything is ascribed a label: politics, gender, class, the list goes on. Why has it become apparent that in contemporary culture, we appear to have a somewhat inherent desire to dissect the most natural elements of human life into marketable, universal and objective categories? And critically, from a person-centred counselling perspective we must question: how do these labels help or hinder relationships during therapy? Indeed, one argument may be that these clear-cut ways of defining people offer comfort and clarity, and possibly even a sense of belonging and togetherness. Therefore, if a counsellor and client share the same theoretical ‘social space’, openness and willingness to share may be more likely.

However, when there is a perceived incongruence between the world of the therapist and client, this may prove problematic. Also, this may instate boundaries in the client’s mind which become obstacles to openness. Some argue that this so-called ‘labelling theory’ is a social tool for us to distinguish between friend and supposed foe. It helps us to identify whom we can and cannot identify with. With that in mind, it is important that this is taken into account by both counsellors and potential clients. In other words, an effective therapeutic relationship relies on more than just a client and a counsellor. Rather, it is dependent upon the right counsellor working with the right client; not every union is perfectly matched.

There are practical and helpful steps that a therapist can take to improve relations and offer a safe, empathetic, attentive space. However, it must be acknowledged that a discrepancy in the core fundamentals at the social-label level may halt progress. For example, at Opportunity 4 we offer a free initial 30-minute conversation to decide whether both parties are well-matched and able to work together effectively. This also allows an opportunity for the counsellor to ensure that therapy at this time is appropriate, valuable and safe for each individual client.

What’s more, these self-imposed labels may not just be barriers to therapist relations, they may also hinder therapeutic progress. For example, if someone has given themselves a label of ‘being a bad person’ or ‘making unhelpful decisions’, this may to some extent become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is therefore left to the counsellor to recognise these cycles and promote looking at the overall person – rather than merely a set of labels. Indeed, some critics have argued that the fundamental core spiritual and humanistic elements have been dismissed and replaced our culture. In essence, counsellors must work to reflect this and address the issue of labelling. This may be by drawing focus back onto the ‘core values’ of the client, rather than unhelpful self (or society) imposed labels.


Guest blog post by Madeleine Pownall, Opportunity 4’s assistant and writer.
Connect on Twitter: @maddi_pow or visit Madeleine’s blog