How I became a psychotherapist (and moved on)

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Nash Popovic: How I became a psychotherapist (and moved on)

When Bob Dylan was asked how he become a musician, he explained that he once had to jump through a window to escape his lover's husband; one thing led to another and he ended up in a bar playing the guitar. Jealous husbands aside, I resonate with his story. When I was six, somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I answered without hesitation: 'A fireman!'  I didn'tthink much about it for the next ten years or so, until I had to decide what to study. By that time being a fireman had lost its appeal, so what else could I possibly be but a film director?! The competition in Belgrade, where I was born and grew up, was fierce: more than a hundred candidates for each place at the Faculty of Film Art. There were several stages of the entrance exam. I passed the first and the second. The third was an interview, which was more or less a formality. I was almost there --and I overslept!In hindsight, I am very glad it happened as I now knowthat I would have been a lousy film director. I am not good with people. I find it very difficult to make them do what I want them to do, which is essential if you want to direct a film. This 'weakness' of mine, however, appears to be an asset for one-to-one practice: my job is not to make my clients do what I want them to do, but to help them help themselves: to be, so to speak, their own directors.

But I am getting ahead of myself. . . .After failing my entrance exam, I went on to study world literature, which opened my horizons in many ways. I enjoyed it so much that I took my time (studying was free in socialist Yugoslavia). Alas, everything comes to an end. The inevitable could not be avoided indefinitely: I went straight from New Wave gigs playing the clarinet and all night parties into the boots of compulsory military service. You’ve heard the stories of soldiers having to clean toilets with a toothbrush?  They are true (although it was not my toothbrush). What I felt in the army was that we are often like leaves in the wind at the mercy of forces outside us, but even more, inside us. This is when I decided what I wanted to do in life:to help people be more in charge of theirown lives.  This is not about happiness, well being or even self-actualisation. It is about freedom and the responsibility of being at the helm of your own boat. I remember buying my brother Carl Roger's book On Becoming a Person for his birthday. He never read it, I did. The other classic, Man's Search for Meaning, clinched my decision to write a book that would address every important area of human life (which ten years later became Personal Synthesis) and to train as a therapist.

Belgrade had (and still has) many nice bars and cafés, but no good therapy training, so when a close friend of mine suggested that I join her in London, and another friend who was an airhostess offered me a free seat in the plane, Itook my chancesand fell in love. With London – still my longest love affair.After waiting on many a table, I learned English sufficiently to finally be able to train in Counselling and Psychotherapy.  In the meantime I witnessed what anxiety and uncertainty, as a result of the collapse of social structures,can lead to: vicious warsin my native country that nobody could have predicted or wanted. Existential Counselling was a natural choice for me, and a good one.  I have since abandoned the straightjacket of existential philosophy, but I am still grateful for learning something difficult and invaluable: how to just “be” with the client, and the importance of it. Novices, as I was, are eager to help and impatient to do something. In our profession though, being is doing. This is a basis for helping clients deal with their inner world to which we, practitioners, don't have direct access.

However, in time, it became clear to me that this is not enough. Clients want both – to explore their inner world and resolve their internal conflicts as well as make tangible behavioural changes and achieve their goals. I came to the conclusionthat we need integration of 'pure' counselling /psychotherapy with more proactive approaches such as CBT, SFT, or Coaching. I named this integrative approach Personal Consultancy. The first attempt to make it public was not successful.“Integration? No, thank you.” The time was not right. This did not last long, however. More and more practitioners have recognised that integration was viable, especially since coaching became a reputable player. Personal Consultancy has attracted increasing interest: the LinkedIn group has hundreds of members, the book I co-authored was published recently by Routledge, there is a new organisation for integrative practitioners (AICTP), and I am running the first UK Postgraduate programme in Integrative Counselling and Coachingat the University of East London. So has it all been worthwhile? Ask me in thirty years – the really interesting part has only just begun!


Dr Nash Popovic is a Personal Consultant in private practice, senior lecturer at the University of East London and director of Personal Well-Being Centre. He co-authored Personal Consultancy book.