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Listening for what is not allowed to be said: counselling psychology, discourse and women’s experience

Curran, H. (2021). Listening for what is not allowed to be said: counselling psychology, discourse and women’s experience. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City, University of London)


I aim here to offer an overview of what lies within this research portfolio. More than a summary of the various parts – a piece of original qualitative research, an article which might be published in an academic peer-reviewed journal, and a clinical client study – I hope to reflect on the process of compiling the portfolio, attending particularly to the underlying threads which knit the parts together. Finding the space too to consider how this has shaped me as a researcher, a practitioner, and a person, feels important as I begin to realise that, in inching nearer to completing my doctoral training, I am not arriving at the end rather departing into something new. Being able to sit in the messy in-between, as I find myself now, and creatively make sense of it, feels an apt way of echoing where I see value in both the research process and therapy, and reflects the discursive construct at the heart of this study (which I argue is being suppressed and kept out of public discourse) – the powerful, unboundaried liminality of birth. In one sense this portfolio reflects and demonstrates the clinical and theoretical efforts and learnings I have engaged with over the last five years as part of the counselling psychology doctorate. But on another level, I can see it represents a longstanding interest in language, women and female relationships, and the power dynamics which constitute or limit opportunities for women’s practical and subjective experience which predates this research process. Years before embarking on a change of profession and undertaking the DPsych, and before birthing my children, I wrote another (more obscure) thesis, about how the material design of instruments of harm (torture) in early-modern England was based on the design of gynaecological instruments, selected for their potential to be not only physically harmful but also psychologically so. Before that, I am also reminded of my preparation for an undergraduate university interview, where I became preoccupied with Euripides’ Medea. I guess what stuck, and what has been woven into this portfolio, is an awareness that women, and their bodies, have always been constituted through dominant discourse with the potential for being otherly, which sparked curiosity about how that leaves women (often shamefully) stuck between a rock and a hard place. Desired and yet feared. Controlled yet uncontrollable. Hysterical but also compliant. Finding a way to understand how women are made to and disallowed from, taking up space in the social world – whether that’s in the way they are able/unable to dress or age, or as this portfolio attends to how they are allowed/disallowed to birth or eat – has been as much a personal quest as a professional one. A longstanding interest and awareness of the power of language, too, has shaped this work. It has been a process through which I have been able to understand more my own historic tendency to listen, and find a safety in silence. Experiencing a discontinuity after the birth of my first child, however, which manifested both as a compelling desire to talk about the birth and process it and yet a struggle to do so – a feeling that there was not an acceptable space in which to adequately convey it (not wanting to disturb people), made me curious to the function of this silence. It didn’t offer safety, rather I experienced it as oppressive. This research process has offered me a way, by being immersed so heavily in others’ talk about birth, to be released from that pressure to remain quiet, and might, I hope, offer others the potential to more openly take up alternative discourses around women’s experience, such as childbirth, and embrace different and more complex ways of constructing, and experiencing such processes. I have long been moved by the creative freedom that the arts and literature employ to construct experience in ways that seem inaccessible within everyday talk. This has seeped into how I have come to author the pieces of work included here, using quotes from poetry and memoir throughout the research and journal article, and in the clinical study, by drawing on the therapist’s creative capacity to engage the imagination with imagery to construct, and so experience things differently. An initial intention for the research was to combine a discourse analysis of women’s talk about childbirth with analysis of how birth is being visually constructed and represented through images posted on Instagram. Restrictions of time, combined with the (not fully anticipated) depth and breadth of discursive themes and positions which emerged from women’s talk in the research data, meant I had to reconsider, and a decision to focus purely on women’s talk about birth was made. This opens up a pathway however, for future research to build upon findings produced here and consider how birth is being visually constructed by women, and whether this might offer a way to bring women’s experience of birth, and its visceral liminality, more into public, dominant discourse. I introduce the potential for this, and an example of how birth is being alternatively constructed through visual discourse, in the journal article. As a trainee counselling psychologist, it is the in-between and darkness – liminality – which interests me, both in clinical practice and the research process. In addressing childbirth, I have sought to bring the mess and distress – physically and psychologically – to light, arguing that it has long been excluded, so that women can come together supportively, and that services might address and prioritise, rather than shirk and avoid, women’s experience of birth (Howard & Khalifeh, 2020). I have sought to show how this is being excluded from social discourse in the publishable paper, and in the client study I have sought to demonstrate how the therapeutic relationship can, in bringing hidden, more shadowy parts of the self to light, allow them to be expressed, relationally held and responded to.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Departments: Doctoral Theses > School of Arts and Social Sciences Doctoral Theses
School of Arts & Social Sciences > Psychology
Date available in CRO: 07 Jun 2021 15:57
Date deposited: 7 June 2021
Text - Accepted Version
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