Hugh Clarke is a therapist in N22, London

What attracted you to become a therapist?

I first trained as a teacher of English and Drama. Having taught in secondary schools for 10 years, I became interested in working with adolescents who experienced emotional and behavioural problems. I began my therapy training a year before working in a centre for such young people. 

I’m attracted to therapy because I’m curious about people and about understanding the unique ways in which people lead their lives. My involvement with English and Drama has proved valuable in my therapy work – literature and therapy both deal with stories and one enhances the other. 

Where did you train? 

I completed my initial counsellor training at the University of East London. This was an integrative training, which I followed up by training in the Adlerian model, with the Adlerian Society (UK). I am interested in Adlerian ideas because of Adler’s unique socialist perspective on therapy and his teaching about community and cooperation. Eventually, I completed an integrative psychotherapy training with the Minster Centre and since then I have completed training in mindfulness and in working with trauma from a sensorimotor perspective.

Can you tell us about the type of therapy you practise? 

I don’t think I made a conscious choice about how to work. It has evolved and is still doing so. It also adapts to the person I am working with. It has been influenced by my training but also by my interest in literature and by my professional and life experiences. 

I could refer to different theoretical components of my work, for example, I often help clients to uncover and explore inner dramas and conflicts. My work is influenced by an idea which I now know is attributed to the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who said that, “Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself”. While I’m interested in the history of my clients, I’m also interested in what they can do to create their themselves and their own desired future.

My experience of meditation highlights how valuable it is to ‘slow down’ and to pay attention to details – details of the world we live in and details of our inner and outer experiences. In therapy, we will look at what is going badly in life and, at the same time, I encourage clients to be curious about what’s going well. We will not just talk about things – we will try things out, in a safe and supportive way, experimenting with different options and bringing out the “creator” within us – including me.

Above all, it is important to respect the people I work with – we are all endeavouring to find happiness and contentment and in difficult times. I have therefore made a conscious decision about how “not” to work. I remember reading about Melanie Klein and how, because she believed in maintaining a “blank screen”, she never greeted nor said ‘goodbye’ to her clients. I think this pretence of professionalism is disrespectful, superior and unwelcoming. Friendliness, warmth, humour, respect and being genuine, are all important elements in therapy.

What sort of people do you usually see?

I work with all sorts of people from teenagers through to much older people. I work mainly with individuals and to a lesser extent with couples. The presenting issues vary and are too many to itemise. I’m tempted to say that there is really only one overarching presenting issue, something like: “I am in a place which is painful, distressing or limiting – how can I get out of it or make it more bearable?”

What do you like about being a therapist?

I’m a curious person and I try to encourage curiosity in the people I work with. I feel very privileged when someone shares their concerns and ‘demons’ with me. It is not easy for clients to speak about their doubts, worries, shame, negativity and destructive feelings. Of course they explore other aspects of themselves as well, but these challenging aspects will inevitably arise and, when addressed, lead to greater ease. It is very rewarding when clients make progress in shaping who they want to be, or when they begin to accept aspects of themselves which were previously problematic for them. 

What is less pleasant?

There are many emotional difficulties which are brought about by social inequality, injustice, poverty, prejudice and different types of oppression. It is hard; but not impossible; to change these things, but it is often challenging to work with their consequences in therapy. There is often so little the individual can do, and anyway, it is not the individual who needs to change. Instead, systems need to change, to become more fair, equal and accepting. Unfortunately, many people on low incomes do not have access to therapy. For them, it is unaffordable. The lives of many individuals, families and communities could be improved by decent salaries, decent housing and a good dose of compassion. Until these things come about, there will always be this less pleasant dimension of therapy. 

How long you’ve been with and what you think of us? 

I have been with for about eighteen months. This coincides with starting my private practice, after many years of working in a university setting. I like how attempts to keep me informed about issues and how it does something similar for clients and potential clients. It also feels a bit like an online community.

Do you ever suggest books or apps to clients?

I regularly recommend books to clients and have some particular favourites. These include John Steinbeck‘s novels, which I think are very sensitive and informative about human struggles, aspirations, experiences and disappointments. I often recommend The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It is a magical book with lots of wisdom. For example, there is a line, spoken by the Fox to the Little Prince, which might sum up therapy: “Because you have wasted so much time on me, you made me feel very important”.

The poetry of Louis MacNeice is also on my list, because he writes so much about making the most of life and searching for meaning. I have often recommended a book called Being Nobody, Going Nowhere by Ayya Khema. This book has a great influence on my own life and clients often say how they feel inspired by it.

What you do for your own mental health? 

I have been practising yoga and meditation for well over 30 years. Meditation has become for me a place of refuge. It enhances things when life is going well and it provides solace when life is feeling rough. I also enjoy reading, usually heavy stuff, with, now and again, a sprinkling of comedy. Since giving up full-time work, I have had more time for cinema and, as with my taste in literature, I prefer those films which deal with serious topics. I like the films of Mike Leigh, Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers. It may not sound relaxing, but I love these film makers because their work deals with complex relationships and genuine human dilemmas. 

I dabble with writing poetry and, particularly throughout the summer, get much pleasure from being in my garden, watching the sparrows squabble, walking and cycling. Most importantly, there is a lot to be said for sitting doing nothing.

I don’t use social media and I don’t have a mobile phone. I know this is unusual, but I see my avoidance of these systems as beneficial to my own wellbeing. I think social media and some aspects of modern technology have created unhelpful situations in life. They have invaded our privacy, encouraged impatience and created damaging expectations of ourselves and others. For these reasons, I don’t want to engage with them. Instead, I want to develop a slower approach to life, and an approach which enables me to focus on the small details, rather than being hurried past them.

You are a therapist in Wood Green. What can you share with us about seeing clients in this area? 

Wood Green has one of the most diverse populations in London and this is its greatest asset. I don’t think the area defines my client base, partly because I see clients from across London, and the city as a whole is wonderfully mixed. There is much to be learned and enjoyed by meeting people from such varied backgrounds – cultural, religious, occupational. There are some parts of the city which feel sophisticated, and Wood Green is not one of them. However, the sophisticated parts often feel alienating and empty. Wood Green, on the other hand, has a lively and friendly atmosphere. People from different cultures mix amicably and are happy to engage. 

What’s your consultation room like?

I hope it is cosy and welcoming. Its atmosphere is certainly not cold nor clinical. I want people to feel comfortable, secure and relaxed and I think the room, with lots of warm lighting, rugs and cushions, helps to create these qualities. Space plays an important part in our emotional lives. Whether we work or not, at the end of the day, it is important to return to a “home” not just a “house”. My room also contains things to experiment and communicate with, such as toys, marbles, colouring pencils. Several years ago, when I was working in a university, a student gave me a fluffy monkey – it is now part of my room too, as a representation of the mind and all its distractions. 

What do you wish people knew about therapy?

It would be great if everyone could see therapy in less stigmatised terms. We generally don’t stigmatise eating and exercising and, in a way, therapy is really exercise and nourishment for the mind. Thankfully, attitudes are changing and it is great to see many more people engaging with therapy, especially men, who have, for too long, been closed up and trapped inside themselves. I hope this also signals a bigger change – men and women working together against a common enemy. Men are just as oppressed by machismo as women are. It’s great when men and women defy the stereotypes and create new ways of being, which are liberating and creative. I’d also like more people to know that therapy is not just about working with problems – it’s also an opportunity to reduce speed, to stop for an hour, to reflect, to develop as a person.

What did you learn about yourself in therapy?

I’ve had many years of therapy as part of my training, but not entirely so. This question is difficult, in part because I have forgotten a lot of what I’ve learned. However, I’ve also forgotten most of what I learned at school and at university, even the stuff which, at the time, I thought I knew well. This doesn’t matter because serious learning is possibly not about facts nor what is remembered. It’s more about what is experienced and how we reflect upon this experience. 

I think it was Einstein who said that, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” I think this also applies to therapy because we’re not really setting out to learn something. Instead, we are setting out to explore and to create something new. Our capacity to imagine alternatives is a great companion with this endeavour.

Contact Hugh here

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