Meet The Therapist: Tim Harvard-Sweeting
What attracted you to become a therapist?
It’s a long story, but after 25 years as an environmental manager for the international oil and gas industry I was looking for a second career. I undertook a very detailed career aptitude test and the results indicated that I am best suited to work as a psychotherapist. It came as a bit of a surprise, as I had not seriously considered this work before. But the test’s result was so clear and strong, that I decided to look into it. I started reading up about psychotherapy and discovered that I was fascinated. I kept reading about it constantly for over three years, such was my passion for it (so I guess the test results were right!). I love helping people in such a direct, fundamental and non-abstract way.
Where did you train?
I was lucky enough to be trained by world-leading experts at the University of Nottingham. This included a placement at the university’s excellent research clinic, The Human Flourishing Project. Person-centred therapy is difficult to learn and difficult to practice. It requires authenticity and cannot be done on auto-pilot.
Can you tell us about the type of therapy you practise?
I practice person-centred therapy. This is the really different one, because it works from the inside-out. It is based on the client-therapist relationship and therapeutic attitudes, rather than assessments and treatments. It is not dependent on medical diagnoses. It is conducted from within the frame of reference of the client, not that of the therapist (hence its name), because it is ultimately the client’s understanding that matters more than the labels of the therapist.
The person-centred approach allows the therapist to respond empathically to the needs of the inner self, the unconscious ‘organism’, or existential self of the client, and in providing a truly unconditional acceptance of these underlying needs the therapist can help the client to question the thought processes and values which might be corrupting how these needs are being expressed in the world. The client can learn to say what they feel, instead of living through a mask built of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’. They can find the confidence to live more authentically, as their true selves. As Carl Rogers, the therapist who discovered the person-centred approach, said, ‘What I am is good enough, if only I would be so openly’.
I chose the person-centred approach because it allows me to be myself. It has been called the purest form of therapy, because it is so free from any persona of expertness on the part of the therapists, and the contrived pretence of assessments and treatments. There is no judgment, no expectations, no homework. Patients can spot when a therapist being inauthentic, and most don’t like seeing it. If anyone tells you they know what is going on in your head they are lying. I have too much respect for people to sit in front of someone in need while pretending to be anything other than on their side.
Because this approach is so dependent on the openness and genuineness of the therapist, it allows the therapist to be themselves, and I often bring insights from Buddhist psychology, mindfulness, or existential philosophy, because these are ‘me’. (This is not ‘integrated’ therapy because the frame of reference is always that of the client).
How does person-centred therapy help with psychological distress?
Because the person-centred approach works from the inside out, it means that the therapy is as individual as the client themselves. We don’t work with a ‘label’ imposed by some know-all who doesn’t actually know you. We work with your words, your images, your metaphors. Your distress is your own, and as unique as a big old knot that you’ve been dragging around for years. So the approach is not dependent on diagnoses (which are too often scientifically meaningless). And because it works from the inside-out, the person-centred approach works with all conditions.
It is common for a client to tell a person-centred therapist that they have never felt so understood before. And for many client, particularly those with serious symptoms and profound distress, this can make all the difference.
Person-centred therapy is holistic, in that we can work with whatever you bring: thoughts, emotions, behaviours, dreams, or embodied feelings.
The person-centred approach to psychotherapy remains as effective as any other, yet deeply misunderstood, even among mental health professionals(!).
What sort of people do you usually see?
I work with adults and teenagers of all sorts. Some are real high-flying professionals, some have limited means (I offer concessionary fees). Some are in the US or other such exotic spots, and some are from PZ (as we locals call Penzance).
People come to me with all kinds of conditions: stress, anxiety, depression, panic, trauma, grief, relationship difficulties. Because the person-centred approach is based on the idea of personal growth – rather than ‘disorder-diagnosis-treatment’ – it can be called therapy, counselling or coaching, depending on how the client sees it.
I also work with couples, both face-to-face and online. The person-centred approach has always worked well with couples, because it helps each party feel better understood and more confident to say more of what needs to be said. The aim is not for me to provide advice, but rather to help each party to feel more authentic within the relationship. If I can do that, then they can decide for themselves how to move forward.
Most of my clients meet me online. Most are based overseas, but many are based in the UK.
What do you like about being a therapist?
It is a real privilege to be allowed into someone’s inner world, with the sense of connection which this brings. And I love to see the results of my work: it means a lot to be told that I have helped someone to overcome their difficulties and get back into the world.
What is less pleasant?
This is a tricky one to answer. One of the many quirks of the person-centred approach to therapy is that the therapist is generally much less likely to fall out with their client, because most client grievances are to do with therapist expectations or the therapist ‘not listening’, mis-diagnosing, or recommending something that is inappropriate. If the therapist is empathising with the client’s inner organism there is very little scope for any kind of interpersonal strife, e.g. ‘transference’ is not a concern if you are not pretending to be an expert.
The worst aspects of being a person-centred therapist in the UK are political: the combination of the current CBT-mania and ignorance about person-centred therapy (and other humanistic approaches). Person-centred therapists see a lot of clients who were pushed towards CBT but found it was not for them. It would be better if the NHS provided a proper choice to start with(!)
How long you’ve been with welldoing.org and what you think of us?
Too early to tell – you might want to hide this question☺
Do you ever suggest books or apps to clients?
Nope. It would not be very person-centred to do that.
What you do for your own mental health?
I try to eat well and sleep well. I do not smoke and not drink too much alcohol. I work hard and try to manage my finance well. I work hard on my marriage and my relationships with my family. I exercise regularly, including walks in beautiful West Cornwall. I unwind by reading, playing guitar, or gently mocking the cat. I avoid multi-tasking and try to be fully present with whatever I am doing, be it work, rest or play. I meditate occasionally but (more importantly) try to pay attention to my moment-to-moment experiencing throughout the day, and how I am responding, in my body, to the day’s events and interactions. I try to respond empathically to others instead of merely transacting with them. I try to avoid ideologies or other forms of pre-determined world view. Authenticity is being driven by your own personal values rather than living amid a complex web of opinions (most of which are not one’s own). I am human because I can choose how to respond to what is happening, and I need to practice this in order to avoid slipping into inauthenticity and ‘autopilot’. I try to conduct each day as the star of my own movie☺
You are a therapist in West Cornwall and online. What can you share with us about seeing clients in those areas?
Way too many therapists chasing way too few clients. I had thought things were bad in Nottingham!
What’s your consultation room like?
It’s a lovely room, with beautiful furniture and a great view over a large garden and Mount’s Bay. But as a person-centred therapist I would hesitate to call it a ‘consultation’ room, because the best expert on you is always going to be you – not me or any other therapist. My role is to help the client to consult themselves(!) It has been said that other types of therapist listen only in order to speak better, whereas a person-centred therapist will speak only in order to listen better.
What do you wish people knew about therapy?
Ooh, several things. I wish more people knew that on average: therapy helps over 80% of clients, it has a greater lasting effect than medication, and that CBT is no more effective than person-centred therapy or any other major approach. I would also like people to be aware of how faddish the therapy sector is.
What did you learn about yourself in therapy?
Lots – a good therapist is one who finds personal growth in all human interactions, particularly a relationship as deep as that found in therapy. As a person-centred therapist I pay constant attention to how I am inwardly responding to what happens in a therapy session, and how I can allow myself to give voice to these inner responses. This is a state of authenticity and one of growth. It might sound strange, but in learning how different people can be, I have learned how similar we all are. We all need to feel understood, and understandable by ourselves. The two go together.