Client experience in psychotherapy: what heals and what harms?

Document Type

Journal Article


Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology


Faculty of Regional Professional Studies


School of Regional Professional Studies




Sherwood, T. (2001). Client experience in psychotherapy: What heals and what harms?. Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 1(2).


The purpose of this paper is to examine what heals and harms the client in the psychotherapeutic encounter, from the client's perspective. The experience of eight clients was explicated using a model based on Giorgi and Schweitzer. The counselling experienced as healing by clients has at its core a vibrantly warm and honest relationship where the client feels held in the safety of the good heart space of the counsellor. The counsellor is experienced as providing an intense beingness for the client that embraces the client's suffering and provides solid ground created out of the crucible of the counsellor's own encounter with his or her shadow. The counsellor is emptied out of his/her own agenda and provides space for the client's experience. The counsellor can evoke the higher resources of the client. The counselling is experienced as renewing and reconnecting the clients to his/her sense of self, of other and the lifeworld. The counselling relationship experienced as harming is described as being drained of human presence and transforming power. There is no alive human connection. The counsellor is experienced as insubstantial, and has no ability to hold traumatic experience. The counsellor's cold reception to the client's vulnerabilities has the power to shatter, fragment and splinter the client. The counsellor is full of self. This fullness may be ego that manifests as dry intellectualising or playing manipulative games as a substitute for human presence. This may lead the client to terror, sickness and anxiety. The counsellor may be full of their own fears and are experienced by the client as chaotic, avoidant and overwhelmed. Their unavailability leads clients to experience emotional depletion, exhaustion and frustration. The counsellor's self-righteousness, judgement and critical disengagement are experienced by clients as being belittled, condemned and diminished. The therapeutic encounter results in a weakening of the human potential for recovery. Both client and counsellor emerge as lesser human beings, with weakened relationships to self, others and the world.

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