Fresh perspectives: new books from staff on the psychodynamic counselling programme

Two members of staff on the Department's Psychodynamic Counselling programme have recently published books. Alastair Ross, Director of Psychodynamic Studies, has published Introducing Contemporary Psychodynamic Counselling and Psychotherapy: The Art and Science of the Unconscious, a comprehensive introduction to the field that is likely to become a set text for students. The book by Val Parker, a tutor on the Certificate in Psychodynamic Counselling, is called A Group-Analytic Exploration of the Sibling Matrix: How Siblings Shape our Lives, and explores the influence of sibling relationships on our adult lives.

Psychodynamic counselling is a talking therapy derived from the work of Freud, Jung and other psychoanalysts. It helps people develop a better understanding of how their unconscious feelings influence the way they relate to other people, and to address unresolved issues that cause problems in those relationships. ‘It’s an incredibly demanding course emotionally, and it involves being in personal therapy and understanding, not just in your head, but in your body and in your mind, the way that unconscious processes work,’ says course director Nic Bayley.

The psychodynamic counselling course has been running for more than 20 years. About 24 students, ranging in age from early 20s to their 60s, enrol each year to take the one-year, part-time Postgraduate Certificate. They come from a variety of backgrounds, including HR and journalism as well as the caring professions. Approximately half continue on to the two-year Postgraduate Diploma in Psychodynamic Practice, while the remainder choose to apply the principles of counselling and psychodynamic understanding in their existing careers. Students who complete the diploma can apply to continue on to the MSt in Psychodynamic Practice.  

A passion project

Alistair Ross has been teaching on the programme for 11 years. He is a former student of Michael Jacobs, who wrote the definitive introductory text on psychodynamic counselling, The Presenting Past, in the 1980s, which ran to several editions. Dr Ross’s book came about because Jacobs’s publishers wanted to replace it with a more up-to-date work. Although Jacobs’s book is very good, it was also ‘of its time,’ says Dr Ross: ‘Psychodynamic theory has changed and adapted and therefore it needed a fresh perspective.’ The book draws on much of what he’s learnt from teaching the Oxford Continuing Education course and in clinical practice.

A few years ago, a climbing accident that left him critically injured made him decide only to take on projects he felt passionate about, and this book is an example of that. ‘The book is written in a very personal way,’ he says. ‘I discovered the way I write best is about writing on things that are close to me, so there are lots of my clinical illustrations in the book, suitably changed for reasons of confidentiality. I think there’s something about that that comes across in the book, there’s an energy about it. It’s not, “You can do this if you like in this circumstance.” I’m more likely to say, “This is what I did based on theory in this circumstance and it was a disaster, and therefore this is what I did instead.” There’s lots of this kind of learning in it.”’

Sibling dynamics influence our behaviour as adults

Whereas Dr Ross’s book is broad in scope, Val Parker’s book is the opposite: a detailed exploration of a particular element of family life – that of sibling relationships. She was inspired to write it because of the big gap in research and writing about siblings. ‘There are articles but no books, so it was huge,’ she says. ‘The more I’ve written about it, the more I've realised that it was an extraordinary kind of hole. I call it the blind spot.’

As a psychodynamic counsellor with more than 20 years’ experience, and who has taught on the Postgraduate Certificate for 12 years, Ms Parker has long been interested in how our interactions with siblings in childhood play out in adult life: ‘I write about sibling dynamics in organisations and teams, and how not only does the organisation have a sibling dynamic of its own but it resonates with people’s own personal sibling history – so if they’ve got a history of feeling never quite good enough because it’s an older sibling who always seems more successful, they’ll keep repeating that pattern in work.’

There is a tendency, she says, to think that the most important feature of sibling relationships is rivalry, but that isn’t necessarily the case: ‘I really think through the book about how much people yearn for connection – right from a small baby, how you are born into a group.’ That group includes parents and older siblings, and those relationships shift and develop with each new child who is born, she notes.

Although aimed at a specialist audience, her book is being read and enjoyed by lay people as well, she says: ‘There are lots of stories and narratives in it. Some people are reading it who are not necessarily academics or therapists, but just interested in their own siblings’ histories, because the idea of the book is that your experience with your family of origin and your siblings is very fundamental to the person you are, and has a huge influence on how you interact with others and how you feel about yourself.’

Published 28 April 2020